It was an extra special Flag Day last week for about 90 Orange County veterans as they were honored at an annual lunch event presented by more than 400 local students.
The June 14 luncheon was part of the Corona del Mar High School Living History program that pairs sophomore students with veterans from the Freedom Committee of Orange County.
During the semester, the students asked the veterans about their service experience, researched their military campaign, recorded their interview on video, created a documentary DVD and wrote thank you letters. It all came together at the luncheon, which happened to land on the patriotic holiday this year.
The stories from the sophomores’ textbooks come to life through the veterans’ stories, said FCOC Newport-Mesa Unified School District Living History Program coordinator Denise Weiland.
“The students are pretty blown away by their stories,” Weiland said. “It’s something they would never get out of a history book.”
They learn a lot and appreciate the veterans and their service more, she added.
“This was an unforgettable experience that will stick with me for the rest of my life,” CdMHS student Winston Vowyer said during his “reflection,” a brief summary of what he learned from the project.
The veterans feel appreciated and like sharing their stories, Weiland added, and many return year after year to participate in the program.
The oldest veteran at the event this year was 102-year-old Balboa Island resident Pete Bonin. His great-granddaughter Whitney Bonin was one of the participating sophomores and interviewed him for the project.
She noted in her reflection that she had heard some of the stories growing up, but none of it “seemed real” while learning about the war in class. During the interview with her great-grandfather it started to sink in “and painted a clear, very real, picture.”
The WWII veteran, who served as a radioman in the U.S. Navy, spoke about his time relaying messages, transporting soldiers, watching for kamikaze aircraft, and some of the more difficult encounters, including seeing a Japanese woman jump off a cliff with a baby in order to avoid being captured.
Bonin was also interviewed by Chloe Liu, who said he has an “energetic and fun personality.” She was honored to speak with him about his experiences, Liu said.
“When learning about world war two in history class, it seemed almost surreal and implausible that such an event could have occurred 70 years ago,” Liu said in her reflection. “Hearing Mr. Bonin’s accounts of the war was not only informative, but also incredibly inspirational.”
She admires his patriotism and his courageous stories made her more appreciative for the freedoms in the United States, Liu added.
In his interview with the sophomore students, Bonin emphasized his love for America and encouraged the kids to be grateful to live in the U.S.
“It pains me that young people… are not appreciating what a wonderful country this is,” Bonin said. “The freedoms, the opportunity.”
The group thanked Bonin for “bringing the event we learned about in our textbooks to a whole new level,” Liu said.
Another WWII veteran, Richard “Dick” O’Brien, was also on hand for the event. He enlisted in the U.S. Army when he was 18 years old and sent overseas at 19.
“I knew I would survive,” O’Brien said in his interview, because “I was too young to die.”
There were some scary moments, he noted, including when, as part of General George Patton Third Army, they fought the German forces during Battle of the Bulge.
O’Brien also spoke about what it was like “on the line,” what to listen for and how to stay alert, the little down time he had, staying in touch with his fellow Army buddies after the war, as well as the joy of getting mail while away (and writing to girls back home).
He showed the students his French Legion of Honor medal and his Purple Heart, which reminds him of “how close it was.”
There were 14 other WWII veterans at the luncheon, more were interviewed but were unable to attend the event.
More than 550 people attended the luncheon, which students helped organize and put on. The sophomores handled the MC duties, singing The Star-Spangled Banner, putting together the slideshow, and selecting students to share their “reflections.”
“It’s really student run and the veterans really appreciate that,” Weiland noted.
Mayor Pro Tem Will O’Neill was also in attendance and said he sincerely appreciated the invitation to represent the city at such a great event.
“Newport Beach has long celebrated our veterans through our American Legion Post 291, adoption of the Marines 1/1, and the Field of Honor, just to name a few. Kudos to Newport Mesa [Unified School District] and CdM High School for their commitment to ensuring that our students learn more about our veterans than just words in textbooks,” O’Neill wrote in an email this week.
Weiland commented that it goes “above and beyond” the curriculum for World History teachers Mary Christensen, Bob Hiles, Chris Manning, Clay Kennedy, and Jason Hitchens. All are very supportive of the program, she added.
Newport Beach Police Department Chief Jon Lewis, NMUSD Superintendent Frank Navarro, CdMHS Principal Kathy Scott, NMUSD Board of Education President Vicki Snell, NMUSD Board Vice President Charlene Metoyer, and board member Karen Yelsey, were also all on hand for the event.
For the first time in the CdM event’s history, the NBPD honor guard conducted the flag ceremony.
The partnership between the Freedom Committee and CdM High School started in 1999 with a panel of five WWII veterans, including FCOC Founder Jack Hammett.
When Hammett died in 2014, the baton passed to Scott Williams, who still serves as president of the organization.
“It is an honor to work with Scott Williams and all the veterans in The Freedom Committee of Orange County,” Weiland said.
The mission of the FCOC is to bring living history into the classroom.
The FCOC also hosts the program at Newport Harbor High School and several NMUSD middle schools.
The program is tailored for each school, Weiland explained, depending on what they want. Some want a panel discussion or a presentation by veterans, but at Corona del Mar High School it’s very involved and concludes with the big luncheon event. CdMHS is able to host this event because of the support of so many people at school and in the community, she noted. PTA luncheon chairperson Dawn Adelsberg and her committee of parent volunteers helped make this event so special and memorable, Weiland said.
“Corona del Mar takes it to the next level,” Weiland said.
For more information, visit fc-oc.org.