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A note of thanks: Merced children honor veterans with letters

From left, first-graders Isaiah Villanueva, Cindy Cervantes and Haniel Hernandez pen their letters of thanks and appreciation to World War II veteran John Fries.
From left, first-graders Isaiah Villanueva, Cindy Cervantes and Haniel Hernandez pen their letters of thanks and appreciation to World War II veteran John Fries. vshanker@losbanosenterprise.com

A pair of Central Valley brothers who were among scores of veterans making a trip to Washington on Monday will have some special words of appreciation to read when they fly back home.

Students from Don Stowell Elementary School in Merced practiced their writing on Friday by expressing their thanks to John and Richard Fries, brothers who grew up in Fresno and served in World War II.

Though the war was long before first-grader Haniel Hernandez was born, he expressed gratitude to John Fries as he worked on the final draft of his letter to him on Friday afternoon.

“He saved our country,” he said, adding that he believes Fries will enjoy receiving the letters. “We can say we love what he did, and we love him.”

The boy’s teacher, Kristen O’Neill, gave her students the letter-writing assignment as a chance for them to refine their writing skills while also learning what it means to honor someone.

O’Neill learned about the chance to write to the veterans when her best friend said the Honor Flight organizers hoped to gather letters for the veterans to read on their way back from Washington, D.C. So O’Neill volunteered and invited other teachers at Stowell to do the same.

John and Richard Fries were among 67 people from the Valley who departed from Fresno on Monday for the region’s Honor Flight. In addition to World War II vets, the participants included veterans from the wars in Korea and Vietnam, according to Sarah Pruner Gunlund, spokeswoman for the Central Valley Honor Flight organization.

The group is organizing three other Honor Flights for later in 2016. They are scheduled to depart on June 27, Sept. 12 and Oct. 24. The organization is encouraging World War II veterans, in particular, to sign up for the donation-funded journeys.

The two Fries brothers actually are among five siblings who were making the flight, according to a report by ABC 30. John and Richard Fries were joined by their brothers Bob, Donald and Harry.

During the trip to Washington, the Honor Flight veterans will tour the capital and visit memorials honoring their fallen comrades.

O’Neill said the letters gave her students the opportunity to express words that go beyond facts, to convey a deeper significance. “It gives the students a purpose for what they’re writing.”

First-grader Sebastian Prince said the experience allowed him to learn who veterans are and what they did for him. Plus, he was happy to create something he hopes the veteran will enjoy.

“I think he’s going to be happy and he’s going to like my writing and coloring,” Sebastian said.

The Fresno Bee contributed to this report.

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