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Rescuing vestiges of WWII

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The Andrews sisters' greatest hits are playing on the stereo, a 1941 calendar hangs on the wall, and a mannequin named "Bob" stands in the corner in a heavy leather flight suit, ready for another bombing run in a B-17.

Chip Henneman smiles as he sorts through a pile of toy cardboard war planes cut from cereal boxes 60 years ago. He's the first to admit that he's a "man born out of his time."

"I relate with the 1940s generation better than I do with my own," says the 36-year-old cofounder of Salt Lake City's World War II Preservation Society, as he sets up another memorabilia exhibit in a retirement home. "These guys were heroes — I often wonder if I could do what they did. People today are too self-centered, only looking out for themselves. We'd all be better off today if we had some of that World War II attitude."

Self-centered is certainly not a word that applies to Chip and the other five members of the WWII Preservation Society — a group of collectors who share their vast displays with senior citizens' groups, libraries and school kids.

I recently joined Chip and another cofounder, Rodger Busenbark, for a Free Lunch of grilled chicken and salad as they set up an exhibit at Salt Lake City's Cordia Senior Residence center. The pair hauled in boxes containing hundreds of items — everything from nurse's uniforms to air raid instruction booklets and a radio made from a soap dish in a German POW camp.

"This is only 15 percent of the stuff we've collected," says Rodger, 55, who started the WWII club with Chip 13 years ago after the men met at a vintage aircraft show. "It's important to share it because our (WWII) veterans are dying at the rate of 1,000 a day. They literally saved the world and we want young people to know that."

Disabled from a stroke and nearly blind, Rodger has set up his collections of military insignia and uniforms so many times, he doesn't need to see to neatly line up the items.

"Look at this," he says, holding up a yellowed letter from the Army to a mother of a soldier killed in action. "Think about that mother opening this, and it just tears your heart out."

Rodger and Chip have met hundreds of war widows, and they've tape-recorded the stories of dozens of surviving veterans to preserve them for the next generation. Chip once drove all the way to Spokane, Wash., to interview the copilot of a Salt Lake City man who survived a plane crash and two years in a German prison camp.

"He gave me his parachute," says Chip, picking up a billowy white panel. "The man who found it as a boy gave it to him at a war reunion in the Belgium town where he was shot down. Most of the material was made into confirmation dresses, but this piece survived."

Chip has been fascinated by WWII ever since he saw John Wayne in "The Flying Tigers" at age 5. His parents gave him an antique booklet once distributed by the Hitler Youth in Germany, and from that point, he was hooked. He's since read more than 700 books about the war and is always on the lookout for new items to add to his collection, particularly memorabilia from Utah soldiers.

"It's my passion now," he says. "It's my way of saying, 'Thank you.' "

"In a documentary, somebody said, 'This is a way of honoring those who gave away all of their tomorrows for our todays,' " adds Rodger. "That's what these guys did. Spending a few hours sharing that history is the least we can do."

Have a story? Let's hear it over lunch. E-mail your name, phone number and what's on your mind to freelunch@desnews.com or send a fax to 801-466-2851. You can also write me at the Deseret News, P.O. Box 1257, Salt Lake City, UT 84110.