Flanked by his pre-teen grandsons, a white-haired veteran toured the Veterans Memorial Museum in Pigeon Forge last week. No tour guide was on duty. None was needed.
As the small group walked through the museum’s exhibit halls, which highlight conflicts from the War of 1812 to the current war on terror, the young boys bounded ahead, peppering their grandfather with questions about each artifact on display. The veteran was happy to answer.
He seemed to know something about everything, from the Vietnam-era sniper scope to the inner workings of the engine on a WWI motorbike still leaking oil onto the stark, white floor of its display case.
“Wow!” the boys whispered in breathless wonder at their grandfather’s wisdom. The wonder soon passed, however, and curiosity once again bubbled up.
“What do you know about this one?” they asked, moving into the Korean War exhibit.
With thousands of veterans in Pigeon Forge for the city’s fourth annual Celebrate Freedom event, Bud Brooks, director of public relations for the Veterans Memorial Museum, says this scene is replayed daily. He said veterans touring the museum, which served as Headquarters for this year’s patriotic event, are often moved to share stories and insights with their families that have been left unspoken for many years.
“Our veterans, and specifically our WWII veterans, are dying at the rate of 1,000 per day, and that generation did not talk much about their experiences in war. The museum creates a more comfortable atmosphere to talk about what they were a part of and how they feel about it.”
With equipment and artifacts on display that many vets used during their years of service, memories often spill out in the quiet halls of the museum. “We have no music playing or sound effects running in the museum and that is quite on purpose,” Mr. Brooks said. “The only sound you’ll hear is people talking.”
Organizers said many of the events of Celebrate Freedom were meant to reconnect veterans with their past. Daily panel discussions explored the darker days of war, while nightly canteen dances reminded vets of the lighter times they shared with their sweethearts.
But the event didn’t focus on remembering the horror of war as much as honoring those that survived it - and the many who didn’t.
Lila Wilson, director of special events for the city, said Pigeon Forge was a great location for a festival honoring veterans. “We are a patriotic town all year round. All of our theatres devote a portion of their nightly shows to honoring the military and we also host a large number of veteran’s reunions every year. It’s a perfect fit for our town.”
One such veteran’s reunion gathered in Pigeon Forge during the closing days of Celebrate Freedom - quite by accident. Cecil Freeman and several of his shipmates from the USS Yellowstone converged on Pigeon Forge for their first reunion in 39 years. Mr. Freeman found his former brothers-in-arms on the internet and chose this town as their meeting point because it was centrally located, not knowing a patriotic festival was in the works.
“We’ve been to some of the shows and are really enjoying our stay in town,” he said.
When asked how it feels to happen upon a town in the midst of celebrating the service of veterans, Mr. Freeman was overcome with emotion. His eyes filled with tears and he quietly said, “I think it’s great to see.”
Mr. Freeman’s former shipmate, Al Berzett, quickly came to his friend’s aid. “We’ve all seen so much more patriotism since 9-11, and I think we’re going to see even more of it in the years to come. This is not like ‘Nam where the soldiers came home to people throwing rocks at them.”
Cecil and Al remember the rock-throwing well. Though they left the USS Yellowstone in September of 1964, before the conflict in Vietnam began making front page news, they watched with the nation as many fellow soldiers were accosted by their countrymen upon returning home.
But there is no bitterness in their voices now, just gratitude for the delayed thanks and the improved environment to which this new generation of fighters will be returning.
“People are much more appreciative of the sacrifices they are making,” said Al. “It’s great to see.”
For the first time, a new group was honored at Celebrate Freedom - firefighters, EMS, and police officers - the country’s first responders who daily stand in defense of the home front.
As part of the festivities, the city hosted a Firefighter Combat Challenge and Law Enforcement Officer Performance and Reaction Drill (LEOPARD) at Patriot Park, where competitors race through drills simulating the different facets of their job.
“We wanted to recognize all of the brave men and women who work every day in support of our homeland security,” said Ms. Wilson. “They contribute to our freedom, as well.”
For the second year in a row, Celebrate Freedom included a theatrical presentation entitled “Celebrate Freedom: The Musical.” The show was presented free of charge every day at the Louise Mandrell Theatre.
Every event at Celebrate Freedom was free and open to the public, except an early concert by country stars Aaron Tippin and Lee Greenwood, which served as a fundraiser for the local high school.
“All of our other events were totally free thanks to the generosity of people like Louise Mandrell who donated the use of her theatre for this show every day,” said Ms. Wilson.
The musical featured brief but historically accurate accounts of every major conflict from World War 1 through Gulf War 1 and the events of September 11, told and sung by characters in period clothing.
From the beginning of the Woman’s Signal Corps in WWI to the burning of draft cards in Vietnam, the musical explored the weighty issues of war and its effects on society through the eyes of those who suffered through it.
A soldier in Korea fighting the “forgotten war.” A liberated woman of the 90’s whose daughter served in the Gulf War. A soldier in Vietnam fighting a war he didn’t agree with, but fighting still. A young wife whose husband suffered from the mysterious Persian Gulf illness. One of the 200,000 homeless vets on the streets of America.
Audience members - many of them veterans and their wives - openly wept as the lights came up.
“People don’t just observe this show,” Ms. Wilson said. “They experience it in a very personal way.”
At one presentation of the musical, organizers honored Gold Star Mothers and other family members. More than 20 people who had lost a relative to war walked across the stage of the Louise Mandrell theatre to thunderous applause.
“They need to know that somebody remembers the sacrifice they made for their country,” Ms. Wilson said. “And we do.”