BELLINGHAM - A young boy dressed as Superman stood before hundreds of peers, parents and community members gathered at Bellingham Christian School, and quietly said into a microphone, "Real heroes wear dog tags, not capes."
As the boy's great-grandfather held up his own dog tags, chuckles turned to "ahhhs" in the crowd, which gathered Friday morning, Nov. 8, in honor of Veterans Day.
The assembly was one of many events held around Whatcom County in advance of the Monday, Nov. 11, holiday.
Program director Janet Drew said the school chose a World War II theme for this year's assembly in honor of the guest speaker, Holocaust survivor Noemi Ban, and the handful of WWII vets who would be in attendance.
Seated near the back of the crowd, clutching identical red, white and blue canes, were WWII vets Ed Barnhart, 89, and Henry Stamey, 91, who both served in the Navy in the South Pacific. Stamey also later served in Korea.
"We're dying off," Stamey said. "Some kids these days don't even know what Pearl Harbor was."
This was the third year the two men had attended the assembly at Bellingham Christian. Both said they appreciated the effort to educate the youngest generations about the past.
"These kids are really interested to learn about this," Barnhart said. "They put on a great show."
The assembly featured a series of songs and reenactments by the kindergarteners through eighth-graders. The youngest children shuffled to the front in Uncle Sam-style paper hats to sing "Stars and Stripes Forever." Some of the older students sang and danced, dressed like the Andrews Sisters, and others acted out the iconic raising of the flag at Iwo Jima.
Students related to veterans in the crowd stood in front of the audience and introduced their heroes. One youngster introduced his dad, Peter Ahn, an active reserve member at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, as his hero. Ahn told the crowd he and the members of his squadron had been discussing their reasons for serving over the past week, and the number one reason people gave was "for the love of our family and friends."
When it came time for Ban to speak, she shared three of her favorite tales involving American soldiers. In the first, she told the crowd about the handsome American soldier who rescued her and 11 other young women from the woods where they'd escaped from a death march.
"All 12 of us jumped him, and kissed him," she told the laughing crowd. "He said, 'Don't suffocate me, you still need me!'"
Ban, whose family was killed by the Nazis, survived Auschwitz and Buchenwald. She told the children about the seven months she spent as a prisoner making bombs for the Nazis. She and the other prisoners, speaking in Hungarian, decided to mix the wires they were supposed to match, rather than make functioning bombs that would harm the very soldiers trying to liberate them.
"We put the blue with the red and the orange with the yellow," she said. "We made such a wonderful mess."
It wasn't until decades later, when Ban was speaking at Bellingham's Central Library, that she knew whether they had been successful. A man in the front row told her he served in Germany for six months and they'd thought it was the strangest thing, because the Nazis would bomb them, but the bombs wouldn't always explode.
Ban left the crowd with a final message of tolerance.
"If I would have hate in my heart, I wouldn't be free; I would be a prisoner of my own hate," Ban said. "Life is precious; life is wonderful; I love life. We have to help each other not to hate."
Reach Samantha Wohlfeil at 360-756-2803 or firstname.lastname@example.org.