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Rural Missouri Magazine
Honoring our heros
One man's vision is now a glorious tribute
to those who've served

 

by Heather Berry

Fred Hoppe, Jr. was a young boy when his father returned from World War II. At that time war was something that sent his dad home so crippled and scarred he could no longer play baseball with him.

Fred never knew how much of a hero his father had been until years later.

“Storming a Beach” is a life-size bronze sculpture by Fred Hoppe, Jr.

“I remember digging through his drawer when I was a kid and finding a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and other medals and Dad would say ‘now don’t lose those,’ and he’d place them back in the drawer and close it. End of story,” Fred says.

For Fred it wasn’t until one day when some of his dad’s war buddies came over to visit that he really knew what war was like.

“While they had coffee and talked, I hid in the corner and listened,” says Fred. “What Dad never told me, he talked about with these guys. That’s how I learned.”

From that point on, young Fred wanted to know more about what his father had faced as a member of F Company, 141st Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division, a group which captured more than 190,000 enemy soldiers during the course of World War II in Europe. But the soldiers also paid for their fight with 27,000 of their own, one of the highest casualty rates of any division during the war.

Fred’s father realized how interested his son was and told him of battles at Anzio Beach, Salerno, Cassino and the Rapido River, reliving each moment as he spoke with his son.

For half his life, Fred, 48, has made it a personal mission to interview his father and hundreds of other veterans across the United States and record their stories. He also began collecting all the war memorabilia he could find, archiving each piece along with the stories behind them.

His collection resulted in a lasting tribute to the memory of American men and women who fought in any conflict during the 20th century. He decided to build the Veterans Memorial Museum in Branson.
“I came here years ago and was amazed at the patriotic attitude of Branson and the amount of veterans coming here,” says Fred, a Nebraska native. “So that’s why I built it here.”

Coming up with the idea was easy but finding money for the 18,000-square-foot museum wasn’t. He was turned down by 36 grant foundations. “I spent four years trying to raise money for this museum and it was becoming apparent I was going to have to do this on my own.”

Museum goers quietly tour the Veterans Memorial Museum, dedicated to those who gave their lives for our freedom.

So with financial backing from close friends for 25 percent of the project and a mortgage on his home, Fred began his labor of love in 1999. Skeptics told him it would take at least six years to complete a project of this magnitude, but one sobering fact drove Fred to finish the museum as quickly as possible.

“At that time veterans were dying at the rate of 1,000 per day,” says Fred. “Now that count is estimated to be around 1,400 a day.”

So Fred, a bronze sculptor by trade, bought beetle-killed spruce from Alaska and had it delivered to his home in Malcolm, Neb. There he used his backyard sawmill to prepare the 70 tons of logs he would use to give the outside of the museum a natural look.
Along with a crew, Fred worked on the project seven days a week, averaging 18 hour days for 10 months to live up to his pledge to complete the museum quickly. The doors opened in September 2000.

The museum contains more than 2,000 exhibits from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Desert Storm. The long center hall bears the names of 406,000 men and women killed in action during World War II. According to Fred, this is the only place in the world where these names are displayed.

Another hallmark of the museum is one of the world’s largest bronze memorial sculptures dedicated to World War II, created by Fred Jr. Five tons of clay were used to make the mold for the 70-foot-long sculpture consisting of 50 life-size soldiers storming a beach. Each figure is modeled after an actual combat veteran, one from each of the 50 states. Fred’s dad is the model for the lead soldier in the sculpture. When cast, the sculpture weighed 15 tons.

Fred says only 5 percent of the museum’s artifacts were donated. He purchased the rest. Some unique exhibits are Adolph Hitler’s dog tags from World War I, a Ho Chi Minh Trail bicycle, a chaplain’s battlefield organ, a World War I gas mask for a horse and an ornately engraved pistol carried by Eva Braun, Hitler’s mistress.

While the exhibits are educational, Fred hopes the museum helps visitors remember the undeniable courage of those who stood strong in the face of the enemy, no matter what the battle.

“The people who fought these battles were real,” says Fred, “not some made-up story.”

One of Fred’s favorite exhibits is centered around a painting by wartime artist Jim Dietz. It portrays a soldier carrying an officer out of enemy fire in Italy. The painting, titled “Saving Lt. McMorrow,” shows Fred’s father carrying Lt. Ralph McMorrow to safety.

The scene depicted occurred May 28, 1944. Forced to retreat by German forces, three American platoons of the 36th Division were mistaken for advancing German forces and shelled by their own artillery. Discovering that the wounded Lt. McMorrow had been left behind, Hoppe ran 400 yards through enemy fire to find the officer dying.

Until Fred Jr. interviewed McMorrow years later, he didn’t know his father had saved the officer’s life twice in the same day — once in the morning when his leg was shattered after being blown off the roof of a building and, later, when he carried him back to American lines.

McMorrow wrote his rescuer in 1993 to thank him for what he’d done, but the two men never got to visit again in person. McMorrow died later that year and Fred’s father passed away in 1994.

Choked at the thought of his father’s acts of heroism, Fred pauses a moment and then quietly speaks.
“Every day when we get up,” he begins, “each one of us is the beneficiary of all these people who aren’t here to enjoy what we enjoy. They gave their lives for our freedom and we should never, ever take that for granted.”

The Veterans Memorial Museum is open daily from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. For more information call (417) 336-2300. It’s is located at 1250 W. 76 Country Music Blvd. in Branson. Information about the museum can also be found on the Internet at www.veteransmemorialbranson.com.

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