World War II was “like watching a strange movie, but you’re there,” is how U.S. Navy Radarman Martin Schwartz described his service in the posted narrative.
“At times it isn’t exciting, and then the action part starts. Then it is more like a dream. Especially when you find out who is still alive,” added Schwartz, who now lives in Buffalo Grove.
The “American Heroes: Portraits of Service” installation debuted May 18 on the L Concourse in Terminal 3.
It includes 55 photographs accompanied by storyboards and plaques where veterans, from Belmont Village Senior Living facilities, tell their stories.
“It was long periods of boredom followed by moments of sheer terror,” recounted U.S. Army Air Force Staff Sgt. Robert Meiborg of Chicago, a World War II veteran.
Navy Motor Machinist Myron Petrakis, age 101, served in World War II on the USS Murrelet.
“I’m here because of the alphabet,” Petrakis told the Daily Herald. “When we finished training for the minesweepers we were assigned to the fleet by the alphabet. My friend (John) Pate, who was married with a little baby boy, was two names ahead of me.
“He was assigned to the minesweeper 371. I was assigned to minesweeper 372. When the war ended it did not end for the minesweepers because there were mines all over the world,” explained Petrakis, a resident of Belmont Village in Carol Stream.
“On Dec. 28, 1946, the 371 hit a mine … 31 of my friends were lost. They never found my friend Pate.”
Chicago Department of Aviation Commissioner Jamie Rhee at the May 18 dedication encouraged “all Chicagoans traveling through the holiday weekend or in the months and years ahead to take a moment and view and read the stories, take in the faces of the American heroes who lived to old age and forever carry the memory of their friends who didn’t make it home.”
The displays originated 15 years ago when Belmont officials commissioned photographer Thomas Sanders to take portraits of service members in a Los Angeles residence.
“We were so inspired by the portraits and stories, we decided to work with him to build (them) into our company culture since 2008,” Belmont Chief Marketing Officer Carlene Motto said.
Now more than 1,000 photographs grace the walls of Belmont facilities across the U.S.
Whether it’s a World War II or Vietnam veteran, residents eagerly collaborate. Sanders often uses uniforms or other memorabilia in the images. Even if it’s been stored for years, “they know where their services pins are, where their hat is, where their uniform is.”
Engaging in the project has also allowed some veterans to talk about their war experiences with their grown children for the first time, she said.
About 75% of the portraits feature World War II veterans, and the remainder are people who served in the Korean and Vietnam wars or in peacetime.
At this month’s unveiling, Motto said “an American Airlines pilot walked by and stayed for the ceremony. He didn’t have a dry eye at the end.”
Friday at Belmont Village in Carol Stream, Petrakis and his friend Richard Nelson, who was a corporal in the U.S. Army from 1953 to 1955, discussed being in the exhibit.
“I’m proud, oh so proud to have my picture on the wall at the airport, because my family and friends and acquaintances as they travel … will see those pictures and they’ll remember me.” said Nelson, 90.
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