Vets recall WWII, Korea, and Vietnam
The day was perfect - sunny skies, balmy breezes, and temperatures in the mid-70s. A parade, complete with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, and a band playing John Phillip Souza marches, entertained onlookers lining the street.
Led by a uniformed color guard, local politicians and military personnel riding in official vehicles provided inspiration for Norman Rockwell to come back and paint the perfect picture of Americana at its best. A forest of stanchions surrounding Veterans Memorial Square held American flags waving lazily in the light winds as they greeted parade participants and spectators gathering beneath their folds. Each flag bore the name of a Jamestown member of the United States armed forces who lost his life in battle. It was Memorial Day in Jamestown - a slice of American life in small town U.S.A.
Before the parade began, a few men walked among the flags, sat on benches, or gazed at the ocean as they reflected on days long passed. One of the men was Howard Catley, 85, father of Mary Wright, the town's beloved theater director for over 15 years. When asked if he had memories of past wars, Mr. Catley was hesitant to speak at first, as if he wanted to choose his words carefully. After a little thought, and prodding from his wife Phyllis, who sat by his side, he spoke of his experience.
His story was short and efficiently told, but the picture he painted was vivid, and as fresh in his mind as if it happened yesterday.
"It was June 6, 1944," he began. "I was a private first class in the Army. We were at Normandy, one hour after the battle started on DDay. My outfit was the combat engineers. We were on LCIs (landing craft) and they dropped us off way out in the ocean. We had to swim in. Each of us had two lifejackets. One, we wore, the other was wrapped around 20 pounds of TNT that was supposed to be used to blow up bridges. We finally made it to shore after a long struggle. The TNT did not. It took three days to find our outfit. We had already been written up as missing in action," he said. When asked what he remembered most, he answered right away. "The kids," he said. "The kids that died and never made it. I'll never forget them." When asked how he would describe his experience in one sentence, he said, "Chaos. It was utter chaos."
Then he changed the subject and talked about good things that came from his "hitch in the Army." He met his wife in England while he was an outpatient in the hospital recuperating from a broken wrist. "We've been married for 61 years," he said affectionately, holding her hand. "I think I'll keep her." Then Phyllis talked about how they met at a tea dance and have been together ever since.
Al Lyons, 74, wasn't as talkative. He sat alone on a bench among the flags. When asked if he was a veteran, he nodded. Then he said that he was in the Marines in
Korea. "I was in Korea in '51 and '52," he began. "I was with the First Engineers. We were bridge builders, but they used us to remove a lot of mines," he added. That was the extent of his war story. He also changed the subject and told about his life in Jamestown for 62 years. "I graduated from Rogers High School in Newport," he said. "I remember the hurricane of '38, and saw the Jamestown Bridge being built, and recently, being brought down." When asked what he remembered most about serving in Korea he said, "It was cold."
Retired Marine Corps Colonel Bruce Livingston, 79, was the speaker at the memorial square ceremony. He served for 30 years, starting in WWII when he was 17 years old. He spoke about a long and distinguished career that began with time on Chi-Chi Jima, a small island north of Iwo Jima, where he served with the Third Marine Division. He also went to China, Korea, Vietnam, and served aboard the Newport News, a heavy cruiser. He attended the Naval War College twice and finished his active career as the deputy director of training and education at Marine Corps Headquarters in Arlington, Va. He said little of his combat experience, although he saw action in three major conflicts. His fondest memories are of the people with whom he served. When asked about what the Marine Corps means to him, he said: "It's the greatest opportunity in the world. Where else can an uneducated 17year-old kid go in as a private and retire as a full colonel with a master of science degree? And it was all courtesy of the U. S. Marines. It doesn't get better than that," he said.
Veterans of WW II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, and Afghanistan were all represented at the Memorial Day ceremonies. They were there to honor their fallen colleagues, past and present. They said little of their personal contributions, and acknowledged their respect for those who paid the ultimate price. For them, Memorial Day is not a happy celebration. It is a time for reflection.