When this newspaper asked area veterans to gather at a local war memorial for the group photo that appears on the cover of this special Memorial Day section, I was a little apprehensive. We had unwittingly scheduled the photo shoot for Armed Forces Day. Some veterans were off flagging graves that day. Others had prior commitments.
Some were attending the funeral of former POW Jimmy Brennan of Pawtucket, who survived the Bataan Death March in 1942, went on to a long career as a policeman in the city, and lived to be 92 years old. I was fortunate enough to interview Jimmy for an article that appeared on one of our earliest Military Page entries.
So I was a little worried how many people would show up, especially in Pawtucket. But when I arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule, 15 or 20 veterans were already standing near the Scallop Shell monument that sits on top of the hill at the Armistice Boulevard entrance to Slater Park. More of them kept coming until we had 50 or more for the photo you see on the cover.
They gathered around Iwo Jima veteran Roland Carroll, shaking his hand and thanking him for his service. We had 20 veterans of World War II in the crowd and by the time we stopped mingling an hour later, most of them had met and talked with each other. Many were old friends who came out on a sunny Saturday morning to share some time with their fellow veterans.
The Woonsocket photo shoot three hours later drew approximately 100 veterans. Once again, the veterans were already mingling 20 minutes ahead of time. The three Levitre brothers – all World War II veterans -- were gathered around the Main Street monument, telling stories and shaking hands with other veterans.
One woman stood off to the side and told me she and her husband, Normand Holcomb, a World War II veteran, had driven down from their home in Maine.
“My husband is from Woonsocket,” she said. “I told him he would see some of his old friends. And now look at him.” Her husband was chatting happily with other veterans, soaking in the camaraderie that only old war veterans can appreciate. (See photo, page 11.)
Another World War II veteran was dressed in his khaki uniform, immaculate and still handsome, a man in his mid-80s with wonderful gray hair. I am still kicking myself for not asking our photographer to get a separate photo of this remarkable old soldier who never faded away.
Back in Pawtucket, I had the pleasure of meeting 88-year-old Leo Beland, a former POW who asked me if I could get him in touch with other POWs. Leo told me he spent 32 days as a POW when he was taken prisoner a month after the Normandy Invasion back in 1944. We will be doing a story on Leo for a future Military Page.
There was a feeling of good will at both gatherings that should be bottled and served to anyone needing a lesson in patriotism and pride in one’s country. All of these veterans can look back now on their service with pride, knowing they gave an important chunk of their young adulthood to serving the United States of America. They talk to each other with respect and admiration. They have values that were taught to them by their parents, values they took with them to the military.
This newspaper plans to hold another photo session a week before Veterans Day in early November. If you’re a veteran who couldn’t attend our first gathering back on May 21, please try to attend in November. It’s a great opportunity for area veterans to spend time with their comrades. We’ll hold it indoors next time. Maybe we can get a sponsor to serve coffee and donuts while we sit around and chat.
Meanwhile, here’s wishing a peaceful and serene Memorial Day to everyone. It is a day to remember those veterans who are no longer with us. Their memories live on with their families and friends and old buddies from the military. We salute them all today, and hope this special edition pays tribute to our local veterans, some of the best people this region has ever produced.