(May 31, 2021) — In case you missed it, here are some pictures, as well as the speeches, so that you may reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day, a tribute to our fallen heroes who made the ultimate sacrifice for our freedoms. In our town’s parade, we don’t have floats, and people don’t throw candy. We have veterans, scouting groups, Fife & Drum corp, both Haddam and Killingworth Volunteer Fire Departments, and a few sports teams, and it is a solemn affair, befitting the day. At the conclusion of the parade, on the Higganum Green, Art Wiknik, who served in Vietnam, gave the Memorial Day address, which can be found here:
“Military service can be a life changer. No matter whether a person serves in peacetime or in wartime. No one goes into the military and returns to civilian life without being affected or changed in some way. In 1968, when I was drafted into the Army, I thought my life was over. I did not want to go because I was having too much fun being single and free. But I went because I knew it was my duty. Not long after that, I was sent to Vietnam and served as an infantry squad leader for an entire year.
“During that time, I had the honor of working alongside some great men who were far braver than me. I also had the unfortunate experience of watching some of them die when my unit took part in a ten-day battle known as Hamburger Hill. That battle claimed 65 American lives and over 300 wounded. The enemy lost nearly 600 killed. Although it was a lopsided victory for us, I have never forgotten the death and destruction I had witnessed.
“After returning home, I joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars. At the time, my uncle, Henry Wiknik, was the post commander. After one of our meetings, I asked Henry what he remembered most about his military service. This is what he told me:
“When World War II broke out, Henry joined the U.S. Navy and served as a Boatswain Mate aboard a troop ship that took part in the D-Day invasion of June 6, 1944. The D-Day military operation was the largest seaborne invasion in history, consisting of over 5,500 different types of watercrafts.
“During preparations for the invasion, my uncle and his shipmates made friends with some of the infantry soldiers who would eventually go ashore to attack the enemy positions. They talked about their hometowns, their girlfriends, their families and what they planned to do after the war. It was the typical banter that soldiers engage in when they are far from home.
“When Henry’s ship set sail across the English Channel, everyone on deck watched in awe as allied forces unleashed a ferocious naval and aerial bombardment on the Normandy coastline. The bombing was intended to soften enemy fortifications so the infantry could get ashore with minimal casualties. When the bombing stopped, Henry assisted in the off-loading of infantry troops into small landing crafts known as Higgins boats.
“After all the infantry troops were off-loaded, my uncle and his buddies took turns watching the ground action through binoculars and spotting telescopes. Their view was partially obscured due to the distance and the smoke on the beach. However, two things began to stand out. The first were the hundreds of dark lumps laying on the beach and floating in the water. The other was the rose color of the ocean waves as they hit the shore. Initially, they thought the beach had colorful sand, but they soon realized that the dark lumps were dead and wounded soldiers and that their loss of blood had turned the water into a foamy pink. It was soon apparent that the heavy bombardment had not significantly softened the enemy positions.
“My uncle and his shipmates were horrified and speechless at what they were witnessing. Only an hour earlier, they were joking with the soldiers and wishing them good luck, not realizing they were helping to send them off to their deaths. The ship’s Captain, also realizing the demoralizing spectacle, ordered everyone to go below deck so the crew could no longer see what was happening on the beach. As the crew slowly returned to their quarters, several of them quietly sobbed over what they had taken part in and at what was happening on the shore. It was an awful picture forever seared into their memory.
“As you can see, military service can be a life-changer, especially in wartime because some events can never be forgotten. So, when you leave here today, there are two things that I want you to remember.
“The first is that no one hates war more than those who witnessed it firsthand. That is why wartime soldiers share a unique bond and perspective that is summed up in a quote made famous during the Vietnam War. It goes like this: ‘You have never lived until you almost died. For those who fought for it, life has a flavor that the protected will never know.’
“The other thing I want you to remember is that most veterans do not consider themselves to be heroes for just doing our jobs. To me, there are only two kinds of military heroes – those who lost their life in service of our country and the families who must live with that loss. Those are my heroes.”
An eighth grade student, Michael Perry, from Haddam Killingworth Middle School read his essay, “A Tribute to Our Heroes,” that won the annual Memorial Day essay contest at the school. We obtained permission from Perry’s parents to publish it here:
“Memorial Day reflection may be like the depth of winter; an absence of color. Memorial Day is one to contemplate, imagine, and to understand. When you look deep into your mind to picture summer, that far-away place, you can almost feel the heat and taste the sweat. The vibrant green leaves of the undergrowth are brighter than ever. But of course, it is just a memory. Memories are always a little greyer, darker, and duller
than reality. Memorial Day is a day to envision, and to understand.
“Most of us have never fought in a war; we have never met death face-to-face. The horrific events that took place, we can only imagine. We should not push thoughts from our minds because this is the day that we embrace our common honoring of our heroes. Servicepeople deserve our gratitude, it is the least we can offer. Today, we should look to our futures realizing that we are here because of the events that took place: looking forward to reflect backwards. The storm is still raging somewhere, yet we are safe. Protection is not a wall, or battalion, but rather, individuals; each with their own identity. People who are ordinary like you and me, who might have left for war, leaving their families, their friends, places they have known for their entire lives – for war. Those who return from their service, are burdened with memories filled with death and destruction. So that America could be. These people, with their own stories and tales need to not only be recognized, but to be understood. Their courage and determination led to self-sacrifice for the greater good and well-being of our country.
“That unnamed soldier on that bloody battlefield: exhausted, trudging, step after step, after step, in an unknown direction – out there because of us, for us. We need to see the whole picture of sacrifice. We need to be appreciative. Being grateful is the least we can offer. The debt we all have to our fallen heroes can be repaid; we are who we are because of them. This must never be forgotten. The United States of America, the red white and blue, celebrates them on Memorial Day in gratitude. More than a parade, and a time to bring the town together, the day is one to bring the country
together, to honor our heroes in a way they deserve. Show appreciation, show kindness, realize sacrifice, and simply understand. This is a tribute to our heroes.”
Photos by Olivia Drake, HVFC.