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Fagen Fighters World War II Museum ready for takeoff in Granite Falls, Minn.

Diane and Ron Fagen are shown with the plane owned by Ron's late father, Raymond. The Ercoupe trainer is displayed in the gallery hangar.(Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)1 / 2
A P-40 "Desert Shark' is displayed in the main hangar in front of a mural being created. It is inspired by German artist Heinz Krebs work that shows P-40 fighters attacking a column of German attacks in the defeat of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps in Tunisia in the spring of 1943. (Tribune photo by Tom Cherveny)2 / 2

To appreciate how prized this collection of World War II aircraft is, know this: The new, 15,000-square-foot brick-faced hangar that holds them is built to be tornado proof.

Yet despite its strength and the firepower on display in it, the signature exhibit of the Fagen Fighters World War II Museum makes weak-kneed the strongest of warriors.

A sculpture by acclaimed artist Fred Hoppe Jr. depicts a squad of American soldiers bursting from a landing craft onto the sands of Utah Beach on D-Day.

Ron Fagen knows of one veteran of the Normandy invasion who "completely broke down'' when viewing the work.

The museum

"I see that from time to time,'' said Greg Gibson, museum director.

It's what museum founders Ron and Diane Fagen, and their sons Aaron and Evan, saw in the spirit of the man leading that charge onto the beach that inspired not only the art work, but the museum itself.

That soldier is the late Raymond Fagen (June 17, 1918 - March 5, 2010), father of Ron Fagen.

The Fagen family owns and leads Fagen Inc. and Fagen Engineering, among the largest builders of ethanol plants in the country. Raymond Fagen fought his way from Utah Beach to the liberation of Paris and the Battle of the Bulge. He came home from the war to carry on a passion for aircraft and flying that his son readily adopted.

Ron Fagen began flying, collecting and restoring vintage, World War II aircraft decades ago.

He said the recent decision to build the new hangar and develop the museum that will host its grand opening next Saturday came as the economy stalled.

"We created our own stimulus package,'' said Ron Fagen.

Fagen Engineers designed the hangar, and Fagen Inc. erected it. The hope was to keep people working until the economy improves, he explained.

The museum is located at the Granite Falls Municipal Airport and includes two hangars, a Quonset hut copy of a pilot briefing building, and a 48-foot,

7-inch tall control tower equipped with authentic, World War II communications gear.

Each of the two hangars hold totally functional aircraft and ground vehicles restored to look as if they just came off the assembly line. With only a few exceptions, all of the aircraft and vehicles were restored in the museum's shops.

All of the aircraft and ground vehicles are "exercised'' periodically in the air or on the ground, according to Gibson.

The sand that accompanies the Utah Beach sculpture came from Utah Beach, all five yards of it shipped in bright blue barrels that did not escape the attention of custom inspectors.

The aircraft in the museum have already attracted visitors from all over the country and overseas.

Aircraft and more

Many are storied craft. The P-51D Mustang "Twilight Tear'' was flown in an attack on Adolph Hitler's ''Eagles Nest'' hideaway in Austria five days before the German leader's suicide. Pilot Hubert Davis shot down two German Me109 fighter aircraft and a Me262, a German jet fighter in the P-51D he named after a Kentucky Derby winner.

Yet there is much more than the aircraft for visitors to experience here. Interactive, touch screens allow visitors to view World War II trainer films and learn about the war effort. There is a library and collection of smaller artifacts in the main hangar.

Artist Dave Reiser is creating a wall-sized mural depicting the victory that P-40 "Desert Sharks" helped the Allies achieve in Tunisia over Field Marshall Erwin Rommel.

The museum has something for people of all ages. The museum is especially interested in reaching out and connecting with schools and young people, said Diane Fagen.

"We want to connect the latest generation with the greatest generation,'' she said.

In some respects, the museum is still in its development stages. Future plans include interviewing surviving veterans and telling their stories in conjunction with the items on display.

There's an important message told here about how America sacrificed and came together at a critical time, according to Director Gibson. "The main thing to know is that World War II was the critical war. It really was the defining war for the United States. Everybody came together at a time when everybody had to.''

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335