By John Lauritsen

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — We lose more and more veterans from “The Greatest Generation” every day.

They are the men and women who played a major role in the Ally victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

And what started as a pastime to honor those veterans has turned into a museum that is becoming a world-wide attraction in a small Minnesota town.

Diane Fagen and her husband, Ron, created Fagen Fighters World War II Museum in Granite Falls.

“Right now, our goal is to connect the Greatest Generation with the latest generation,” Diane said.

It is unlike anything else you will find in the Midwest — and it all started with one airplane.

“It was a P-51 Mustang and we purchased it in November of ’94,” Ron said.

They bought another World War II fighter a few years later, then another, and another. And because word travels fast in a small town, they were starting to get visitors.

“Somewhere along the line somebody said, ‘Why don’t you start a museum? People are always coming here to look at your stuff.’ So that’s kind of how that started,” Ron said.

The Fagan’s have since bought and restored World War II planes from around the world — nearly enough for their own squadron.

They created work for their employees during the recession by having them build a tornado-proof hangar. And they officially opened their doors to the public in 2012.

“This is totally unexpected,” Diane said. “People will say, ‘I had no idea this was here.’ That’s probably the main thing we hear.”

What makes the Fagens’ museum even more unique is that these planes can still fly. Ron and Diane’s son, Evan, is the chief pilot when they put on air shows.

“There aren’t as many P-40s. The P-38, there are only eight of them flying right now,” Evan said. “We’ve brought them over from Europe, Russia, and restored them here in Granite Falls.”

If these planes could talk, the stories they’d tell. But it’s not just the fighters and bombers that have become an attraction. The latest addition to the museum is as somber as it is historical.

“This is the largest Holocaust exhibit of scale in the Upper Midwest. Here in Granite Falls, in Yellow Medicine County,” said Steve Hunegs of the Jewish Community Relations Council.

Not wanting to leave out any elements of World War II, the Fagens found a box car in Georgenthal, Germany and had it shipped here. It is an exhibit now, but it served a much different purpose 70 years ago.

“By the end of the war, a significant portion of Europe’s Jews had been murdered,” Hunegs said.

He has travelled to the museum to visit the exhibit several times.

“Read the story board, look at the pictures, people are in contemplation. The role of the exhibit is to make people think,” Hunegs said.

And that is really all the Fagens can ask for; to keep this important chapter of history alive for generations to come.

“They’ll be here a thousand years from now, and hopefully people will come and look at this a thousand years from now,” Ron said.

Ron says they bought their first plane 22 years ago as a way to honor his dad Ray, who fought in World War II.

“As we lose World War II vets, we realized we need to start talking to the younger people so they do not forget this time,” Diane said.

They have had visitors come from as far away as Europe to see the museum.

There is no charge to visit, just a suggested $10 donation.

John Lauritsen