Hundreds gather at vets hall for Memorial Day event
The rain outside did not dampen the spirits of the hundreds who packed into the veterans hall Monday in Grass Valley in celebration of Memorial Day.
The program included speakers from the Sierra Nevada division of Blue Star Mothers, an organization for those with children who serve or have served in the military, as well as tales from World War II veterans.
Lt. Cmdr. Lou Conter joined the Navy fresh out of high school in 1939, trained in San Diego and learned how to sleep in a hammock as part of the Navy lifestyle.
He took an interest in quartermaster work and was able to learn charts, maps, navigation and ship steering and received his pilot license in Pensacola.
He explained the bristling tension with Japan and the anticipation that “something was going to happen … we just didn’t know when.”
When the Japanese crossed the 180th meridian Dec. 3 with 8-inch guns, it was an act of war, Conter explained, as only 5-inch guns were allowed without approval.
The enemy was detected going south, but radar was only available during a short period of time, he explained, and American B-17s in transit from the Bay Area were traveling to Honolulu around the time Pearl Harbor was attacked Dec. 7.
“We didn’t have time to do anything,” Conter said. “The ship was sinking into the harbor … we were pulling bodies out of the fire … at that time we were told to abandon ship.”
Conter was a part of the largest survivor rescue in World War II with a total of 219 men in three days, he explained.
Conter, who spoke last of the veterans, captivated the audience, which had been just as engaged by the previous three speakers, veterans Storekeeper 1st Class Manuel “Chick” Cicogni, U.S. Navy, Pvt. 1st Class Carl Fox, U.S.M.C., and Aviation Metalsmith 1st Class Dick Bryant, U.S. Navy.
Cicogni spoke about his tour in Japan, joking about how he spoke fluent Italian and had family members of various European descent but was sent to Japan, where he knew nothing of the language.
He spoke of his time in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska during World War II, where the temperature was “30 degrees below freezing … then I was moved to the South Pacific where it was 130 degrees.”
Cicogni reminisced about the opening of the first Vietnam memorial park in Grass Valley and the celebratory parade thereafter. He also mentioned his 70-year membership with the American Legion.
“Pray for those who gave all for this country, living and dead,” Cicogni said.
Fox recalled his enlistment at the age of 16 and joked that he chose his branch of the military after a girl at the post office said he would make a “cute Marine.”
“They asked how old I was, and I said 16, and they said, ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said, ‘I volunteered,’” Fox said to the laughing crowd.
Dick Bryant described his tour in World War II from 1943 to 1945, his experience as a pilot and his stay in Guadalcanal for seven to eight months.
After the veterans completed their stories, Nevada County Supervisor Hank Weston spoke of the meaning of Memorial Day, and how the focus should be not only to honor those who dedicated their lives in the abstract but to remember individuals who fought in the war — friends and relatives.
“Memorial Day is both solemn and joyful,” Weston said. “Living in freedom is a precious commodity paid for by the lives of the fallen.”
The audience stood and sang in unity the Lee Greenwood song “God Bless the U.S.A.,” while Barbra Conner led the song through microphone.
Veterans stood at the front of the crowd, a three-volley gun salute was fired, and veterans performed a hand salute to the tune of “Taps,” while audience members stood with hands over their hearts.
“Amazing Grace” was played by bagpiper Staff Sgt. Leser Milroy, U.S. Air Force, and the popular poem “In Flanders Fields” was read by Wilma Meyer, American Legion Auxillary Unit 130.
While the speakers were mostly veterans who returned from the war, Conter said it is important to remember Memorial Day is meant for those whose lives were sacrificed.
Grass Valley resident Ron Jiannino volunteered to drive the bus for the Local Heroes Memorial Bridge Walk, a tour of spans dedicated to those who lost their lives in the service.
“Memorial Day means everything — freedom, everything we have,” said Jiannino, a member of the Air Force from 1954 to 1959. “I’m very proud.”
To contact Staff Writer Jennifer Terman, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4230.
*Corrections have been made to this article
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