Once it opened, Fred and Lani fully realized the impact the collection had on people. “Are you familiar with that tank?” he once asked an older man who was examining the vehicle. “I practically lived in it,” said the WWII veteran who revealed that he had not seen his “old girl” in 40 years. “Thank you,” he said to Fred. “My life has now come full circle.” Later, according to Fred, the veteran retreated to a hotel room with a bottle of bourbon and wrote an entire account of his experiences, those notes now part of the museum’s Wall of Heroes.
To the end, Fred loved digging into history, uncovering the human stories behind each piece he salvaged. He found tanks, aircraft, even parts of ships in barns or buried underground, where the government had discarded them. Fred was always mystified by the lack of appreciation for these historical artifacts. “We can fix that,” he would say to Skip. The mission was simple: No matter the degree of disrepair, it was an obligation to resurrect the piece, honoring those who had lived and died in it. “Everything in the museum runs, flies, or floats, but the cannons don’t fire,” says Warvel, who uses the original spec manuals to make repairs.
Over the years, I was honored to be Fred’s friend. We toured both facilities on a number of occasions for television segments on WISH-TV. I’ve ridden in Sherman Tanks and sailed around a lake on a Vietnam-War-era vintage patrol boat. I will miss Fred. I won’t miss the harrowing ride in a Russian biplane.
Fred Ropkey could converse knowledgeably (and endlessly) about every U.S. combat mission in WWII. At the end of Fred’s life, he chose not to share his plight with others, instead enduring his cancer pain privately.
This was the one battle Fred Ropkey did not want to talk about.
Dick Wolfsie is a television news reporter, syndicated humor columnist and author. He can be reached at Wolfsie@aol.com.