WHITEFIELD — The entire student body of Whitefield School surprised a local U.S. Army veteran with gifts, cards and admiration during an assembly Thursday afternoon.

Don Gould was born and raised in Whitefield, and he served as a prison guard in Germany for about a year at the end of World War II. Gould is part of a group of Maine veterans spending the weekend in Washington, D.C., as part of the Honor Flight Maine program.

Gould, 89, and his son Dennis will depart Friday afternoon from Portland International Jetport en route to the nation’s capital, where they’ll spend the weekend touring several of the nation’s military memorials and monuments, along with Arlington National Cemetery, with almost 50 other Maine veterans.

Students waving American flags and cheering lined the entrance to the school gymnasium as patriotic music played on loudspeakers. Gould took a seat on the stage in front of four letters spelling “HERO” in red, white and blue. Eighth-grader Riley Delisle presented Gould with a T-shirt that said “Whitefield’s finest” on the front, and his son got a shirt that reads “My dad’s a hero,” which they can wear while on the trip.

“This shirt is so you can represent us on your trip, think of us, and we hope you have a good time,” Riley said.

A group of students then presented Gould with a “D.C. survival kit” for his trip that included a bottle of Moxie, maple candies, a fidget spinner, a whoopie pie, a Rubik’s cube and a pair of Red Sox socks.

Principal Joshua McNaughton said it’s a fleeting opportunity to have a living World War II veteran speak to students, and it was an opportunity the school couldn’t pass up.

“It’s great for our students to be able to learn from him and what he went through and to recognize Mr. Gould as our community member and honor him for what he’s done for our country and the community of Whitefield,” McNaughton said after the assembly.

Gould arrived at the kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school with his son and daughter-in-law, Debbie, and spent 30 minutes in Karen McCormick’s social studies class speaking about his experience as a prison guard in 1945 in Germany. McCormick introduced Gould by calling him a great example to the community.

He was one of about 30 guards at the prison, which mostly housed American troops who committed crimes outside the scope of the war, and usually was posted in one of the 17 guard towers on the prison grounds.

“There were some in there that were pretty bad boys,” Gould told the students. “I was only guarding that prison for about a year, but that was long enough.”

Gould was armed with a 30-caliber machine gun, a 45-caliber handgun and a rifle, but he said he never had to use them. He told the students he was drafted into the Army in late 1944 and was trained for 14 weeks to be in the artillery, but when he got overseas, he was given a guard’s uniform and sent to work.

“I really enjoyed it and had a good time,” he said.

Dennis Gould said his father spent his life working as an auto mechanic and didn’t talk much about the war. He said he’s heard more from his dad in the last two weeks about the war than he had during the rest of his life.

“This recognition means a lot to me because (my dad has) worked so hard for his whole life,” Dennis Gould said. “I just don’t think my mom ever wanted him to talk about it.”

The father-and-son pair are looking forward to this weekend’s trip. Dennis Gould has been to Washington, D.C. before, but his father hasn’t, and he said he expects there to be some emotional moments, especially watching the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider at Arlington National Cemetery and when they visit the World War II memorial.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience, because there aren’t that many veterans of his era left,” Dennis Gould said.

McNaughton said older students at the school have a good understanding of the freedoms Gould and other veterans fought for, and the assembly and presentation gave the students a chance to hear about the war firsthand rather than via a textbook or video.

“We teach about the different conflicts, and the students are able to recognize and value the sacrifices these folks made for our country,” he said. “We teach about the outcomes of these conflicts, and they learn about the sacrifices their local community members made, and they understand how it got our country to where we are today.”

Honor Flight Maine, a nonprofit organization created solely to honor Maine’s veterans for all their service and sacrifices, takes veterans to the nation’s capital to visit their memorials. Top priority is given to terminally ill veterans of all conflicts and World War II survivors. Korean War and Vietnam veterans also are transported on a first-come, first-served, space-available basis.

The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 640 World War II vets die every day, and Honor Flight Maine said the time to express thanks to these most senior heroes is rapidly running out.

The first Honor Flight Tour to the memorials in Washington, D.C., happened in May 2005, when six small planes flew out of Springfield, Ohio, with 12 World War II veterans aboard. The Honor Flight Network program was founded by physician’s assistant and retired Air Force captain Earl Morse; there are now more than 140 network hubs in 41 states.

Gould received a boisterous standing ovation at the end of the assembly, and several students and staff members approached him for a handshake and to offer thanks and well wishes. He smiled and waved as students filed out of the gymnasium on their way back to class.

“This was special, and it really means a lot,” Dennis Gould said.

Jason Pafundi — 621-5663

[email protected]

Twitter: @jasonpafundiKJ

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