One man's vision is now a glorious tribute
to those who've served
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.
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 dont lose those,
and hed place them back in the drawer and close it. End of story,
For Fred it wasnt until
one day when some of his dads 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. Thats how I
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.
Freds 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
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 thats why I built it here.
Coming up with the idea was
easy but finding money for the 18,000-square-foot museum wasnt.
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.
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
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 worlds 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. Freds 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 museums artifacts were donated. He purchased the rest. Some
unique exhibits are Adolph Hitlers dog tags from World War I, a
Ho Chi Minh Trail bicycle, a chaplains battlefield organ, a World
War I gas mask for a horse and an ornately engraved pistol carried by
Eva Braun, Hitlers 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 Freds 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 Freds
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
Until Fred Jr. interviewed
McMorrow years later, he didnt know his father had saved the officers
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 hed done, but the two men never got
to visit again in person. McMorrow died later that year and Freds
father passed away in 1994.
Choked at the thought of his
fathers 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 arent 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.
Its 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.