Punxsy salutes those who gave all
PUNXSUTAWNEY — A violent storm the evening before spared Punxsutawney its wrath during Memorial Day, as veterans and citizens gathered in Barclay Square to honor those in the armed forces who have paid the ultimate sacrifice.
Also, during the annual Memorial Day parade, a handful of local veterans — in tribute to their service to their country — took part in the parade aboard two authentic World War II vehicles.
Paul Corbin, the chairman of the Jefferson County Board of Commissioners who served as Monday's guest speaker, said Memorial Day was first known as Decoration Day, when, two years after the end of the Civil War, citizens decorated the graves of 20,000 fallen Union and Confederate soldiers.
That number has grown exponentially since then, as today, Americans honor men and women from all branches of the armed services who have died in the line of duty.
But too often, Memorial Day becomes the unofficial start of summer, with picnics and other gatherings, and the true message of the day goes unnoticed, Corbin said.
Corbin quoted the United States' 23rd president, Benjamin Harrison, saying, "I have never been able to think of the day as one of mourning; I have never quite been able to feel that half-masted flags were appropriate on Decoration Day. I have rather felt that the flag should be at the peak, because those whose dying we commemorate rejoiced in seeing it where their valor placed it. We honor them in a joyous, thankful, triumphant commemoration of what they did."
The troops who sacrificed their lives did so in giving 100 percent, living life to the fullest and standing up for others in their time of need, Corbin said.
“Never take for granted our freedom,” he said. “Isn't that why our armed forces went into battle in the first place?”
In his remarks, state Rep. Sam Smith said the day is for anyone who served, to “remember those who gave all … to keep this country great.”
This year, there was a handful of veterans who played a special role in the annual pre-ceremony parade, greeting residents along the streets as they rode in two World War II-era vehicles, a Willy's Jeep and a 1942 Dodge WC24, also known as “The Churchill Vehicle.”
Sgt. Scott North drove the Jeep, transporting L. Eugene “Snuffy” Smith and Dr. Paul “Rusty” Johnston, while Dick Engle, a member of the Jefferson County Veterans' Honor Guard, drove The Churchill Vehicle with veterans William Dunmire of Juneau; George Gardiner of Punxsy; Merritt Kirkpatrick of Falls Creek; Gene McKee of Big Run; and Dr. John Quatroche of Punxsy.
Seated in The Churchill Vehicle, Dunmire said when he served in the Army/Air Corps, he was usually either in a place or a Jeep, and McKee added that the vehicles made getting around much better.
“This is easier,” he said, also recalling that he would see Jeeps running back and forth aboard aircraft carriers.
Dunmire added that The Churchill — without power steering and an unsynched transmission — was a challenge to operate.
Quatroche, still a practicing veterinarian at age 90, said he was honored to be a special guest for Monday's Memorial Day events.
“It's terrific for an old guy like me,” he said. “I'm still having fun taking care of small dogs and cats.”
Kirkpatrick, who was stationed in Hiroshima, Japan, around the time that it became the first-ever city to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, recalled that one of the planes on the mission was shot down by the Japanese. The pilot's body was eventually recovered by the Americans and interned at the Temple Cemetery in Hazen.
About taking part in Monday's events, he said, “It was my privilege.”
Gardiner said he was enlisted in the Air Force serving in the states and working at a defense location in Erie at the time World War II broke out. Also at that time, he turned down an enlistment deferment.
“I was told to go enlist, but then they said, 'Well, we have a deferment for you,'” Gardiner recalled. “I had that paper, but I said, 'No, I want to go. I'm single, and I want to enlist.'”
He was assigned to Hawaii for two years, working the latter part of his service at a bomb site with civilians. Much later, in the 1990s, he returned to Hawaii and looked up one of his civilian co-workers — who had married a native Hawaiian girl — in the phone book.
“He was a young man back then, so he stayed,” Gardiner said, and on that trip, the two men were able to reconnect and visit again so many years later.
The World War II vehicles were provided for the parade — and the veterans, most importantly — by Dr. P. Timothy Smatlak.
He said he secured the Jeep in honor of his father, Paul Smatlak of Johnstown, who served as a medic in Company B. The numbers on the vehicle — 20010143 — correspond with when his father enlisted: Jan. 7, 1943.
The Churchill Vehicle — which was built by Dodge for the British as a command car, but later converted to a weapons carrier — is in honor of the father of Smatlak's wife, Karen, Kenneth Woodruff, also of Johnstown, who served in the 94th Infantry, K Company, 376th Battalion.