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Unique Memorial Day tributes worth a road trip

Kansas City's Celebration at the Station draw about 50,000 a year for the free event.  The tribute includes a symphony concert and fireworks show Sunday, May 27 near Union Station.
Kansas City's Celebration at the Station draw about 50,000 a year for the free event. The tribute includes a symphony concert and fireworks show Sunday, May 27 near Union Station. Courtesy photo

Throughout Kansas, you’ll find small, local events commemorating Memorial Day but no large-scale events.

Two of the most unique Memorial Day events in the Midwest, though, can be reached in a short drive for a fun and meaningful vacation. About 200 miles northeast of Wichita is the Celebration at the Station at Kansas City’s Union Station as well as special events at the neighboring National WWI Museum and Memorial, and another 140 miles east of there, in Columbia, Mo., is the Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Weekend Celebration Airshow.

Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Weekend Celebration Airshow

Thirty years ago, the college town of Columbia had the type of Memorial Day event that didn’t draw anyone outside the immediate family of local veterans: five men gathering at the courthouse for five minutes of speeches.

In 1987, Mary McCleary Posner moved back to her hometown after a 25-year corporate career in New York and was disappointed that more wasn’t being done in Columbia to honor members of the military like her father, a WWI veteran who set an altitude record (10,200 feet) in a Curtiss Jenny on Armistice Day in 1918.

She remembered that her father once “told me that I was able to enjoy the corporate career that I had because very brave men and women had risked their lives to give me the freedom to do so, and if I could ever figure out a way to say ‘thank you’ I should do it.”

It started as a small appreciation, but now her thank you is in its 30th year and is considered the largest, free military air show that’s not on an air force base.

The Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Weekend Celebration lasts six days and draws tens of thousands of visitors to mid-Missouri. Organizers – who are all volunteer – don’t keep attendance figures but it’s estimated that as many as 50,000 attend, most coming for the airshow at Columbia Regional Airport on Saturday and Sunday and the parade through downtown Columbia on Monday.

“We have so many cool acts and special guests coming this year because it’s our 30th celebration that we are expecting a really good turnout,” said Jessica Houston, volunteer communications director for the event. “We’re different than a lot of airshows in that our mission has always focused on recognizing, honoring and thanking our veterans and active duty members of the military and its allies. We have a lot of special touches that veterans appreciate, as do our airshow performers, and visitors pick up on that.”

One example is the hour-long Salute to the Nation ceremony each day of the airshow.

The crowd remains silent while the anthems for the U.S. and Canada are played, followed by a 21-gun salute and reading of the names of local veterans who gave their lives in service. About a dozen honored guests, ranging from a four-star general to other active and retired military, are introduced along with Tuskegee Airmen, Women Airforce Service Pilots and other military reunion groups in attendance.

The airshow draws many of the top tier airshow performers and static displays.

The highlight this year is an appearance by the U.S. Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II aerial demonstration team, which is resuming an airshow schedule for the first time in seven years, officials said.

The A-10 is an active duty aircraft and the team will demonstrate the plane’s unique capabilities such as rapid roll rates, low and high-speed maneuverability and short takeoffs and landings. It will also perform a heritage flight, where it flies in formation with a historic Curtiss P-40 Warhawk.

For the first time in the show’s history, three parachute jump teams will perform: U.S. Army Special Operations Command Black Daggers, U.S. Air Force Wings of Blue and Canadian Armed Forces SkyHawks. Each performs during the airshow and will also be part of the Salute to the Armed Forces Celebration at the end of the Memorial Day parade.

Nearly 30 aircraft from a variety of decades will fly demonstrations, including a 1917 Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” making a 100th anniversary flight.

Some of the aircraft also join a static display of at least 20 airplanes, including several manufactured in Wichita.

National WWI Museum and Memorial

The National WWI Museum and Memorial – the only museum dedicated to the Great War – plans special programming each Memorial Day and this year is also commemorating the centennial of the end of World War I.

The museum will be open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday. Museum general admission is free for veterans/active military throughout the weekend, half-price for the public. That means a ticket is $5-$8 per person and allows access for two consecutive days.

The museum consists of permanent and temporary exhibits that showcase one of the most extensive collections of WWI objects and documents in the world. There is an additional cost for admission to the Liberty Memorial Tower ($2) and Wylie Gallery ($3), which is currently exhibiting John Singer Sargent’s “Gassed.” The 1919 painting, on loan from Imperial War Museums in the U.K., depicts a line of British soldiers blinded by exposure to poison gas at a dressing station.

In addition to the massive 21-feet-long by 9-feet-tall work of art, the exhibit features historical and contemporary objects showing detection and protection from chemical warfare from WWI through the modern era.

On Monday, a free, formal public ceremony is scheduled for 10 a.m. in the courtyard outside the National WWI Museum and Memorial. The program includes a keynote address from former astronaut/space shuttle commander Jon McBride as well as musical performances from the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America’s Hot Brass Band, operatic baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan.

Brancy and Dugan also will perform a free 45-minute concert at noon on Memorial Day titled “Centenary: A WWI Memorial in Song.”

Throughout the weekend, the National WWI Museum and Memorial is hosting activities free to the public, including research stations with access to databases for visitors to find their connections to WWI and a Bell UH-1 Iroquois “Huey” helicopter display.

Many time their visit to Celebration at the Station, just down the hill at Union Station, to visit the museum before it closes at 5 p.m. Sunday.

Celebration at the Station

The main feature – a 100-minute concert by the Kansas City Symphony – starts at 8 p.m. Sunday, May 27, however Bank of America Celebration at the Station events in and around Union Station in Kansas City open at 3 p.m. that day. With an expected attendance of more than 50,000 for the free event, now in its 16th year, organizers urge visitors to arrive early and enjoy the pre-show festivities.

“If you live in the region, this really is a bucket list item. You should come see it at least once,” said Beth Buchanan, communications manager for the Kansas City Symphony. “This is the biggest Memorial Day event in the region, and between the events at Union Station and National WWI Museum and Memorial, visitors can make a big day out of it.”

Family friendly activities like petting zoos and face painting are available in the Lee Jeans Family Zone, while information and resources for veterans and active-duty military are at booths in Honeywell Veterans Place.

Visitors can bring in their own picnic or purchase from 20 food trucks attending. Live music starts at 3 p.m. and includes a local jazz band, men’s chorus and the United States Air Force Band of Mid-America’s Hot Brass ensemble.

Each year the symphony concert changes, but a few audience favorites are always included.

“We do a Salute to the Armed Forces every year where we play the service songs of all of the armed forces and ask anyone who has served to stand and be recognized,” said Frank Byrne, executive director of the Kansas City Symphony. “We also do a sing-along where the audience can participate in singing familiar patriotic songs. And, of course, we always end the concert with Tchaikovsky’s ‘1812 Overture’ because it is a big sonic extravaganza.”

U.S. Air Force Staff Sergeant Matthew Kirkpatrick, who earned his master’s degree at Wichita State University, is playing trumpet as a member of the USAF Band of Mid-America and will perform “Taps.”

This year’s concert will also recognize the 100th anniversaries of the WWI armistice, Leonard Bernstein’s birth and Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America.” A 12-minute fireworks show over the Liberty Memorial ends the evening.

“This is one of the ways that the symphony repays the community for all of the support that we get year-round,” Byrne said. “People come for different reasons – to enjoy great music, to enjoy sitting out on a nice evening to watch fireworks or to celebrate and honor all those who have served in our military. It’s a multi-layered event that is both enjoyable and meaningful for people.”

Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Weekend Celebration Airshow

Where: Columbia Regional Airport in Columbia, Mo.

When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Saturday-Sunday (May 26-27)

Cost: free admission; free parking on-site is limited so consider taking a shuttle bus from for $5 roundtrip

More info: salute.org

Celebration at the Station

Where: Union Station in Kansas City

When: 3-10 p.m., Sunday (May 27)

Cost: free

More info: celebrationatthestation.org

Memorial Day Weekend

Where: National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday-Sunday (May 25-27) and 9 a.m.-5 p.m. on Monday (May 28)

Cost: museum general admission is free for veterans/active military, half-price for the public ($5-$8 per person for access for two consecutive days). A public ceremony on museum grounds at 10 a.m. on Memorial Day is free for all.

More info: theworldwar.org/memorialday

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