'We came back; they didn't'
Bill Smallback and Dave Sergent enlisted in the U.S. Merchant Marines in 1945 at the age of 16 and, one year later, joined the Marine Corps.
On Monday, both men, now 86, sat in the front row at the annual Memorial Day ceremony at the Eagle Point National Cemetery. When the Marine Corps League presented the colors, Smallback stood and saluted the flag and remained in that posture until after Brian Williams had finished singing the national anthem. Sergent, accompanied by three of his grandchildren, could not stand, but crossed his heart and faced the flag.
The Merchant Marines suffered the highest casualty rate — 1 in 26 was killed — during World War II, Sergent said after the ceremony had ended.
"So many of the guys never made it back," he said. "Many of them were the ages of my grandkids — 16 to 20. It's important to honor the sacrifice they made. We came back; they didn't."
Hundreds of other veterans were among the large crowd that gathered Monday morning on the grassy knoll in the cemetery to remember those who had paid the ultimate price.
Across the cemetery grounds, small flags, placed by Scenic Middle School students, danced in the wind at the grave sites of the nearly 17,000 veterans and their loved ones resting there.
Oregon Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Mark Dalton paused for two yellow WWII Boeing-Stearman biplanes to fly over before making his opening remarks and introducing the keynote speakers, Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., and retired Marine Col. Dave Dotterrer.
Wyden took a moment to recognize and applaud all the families of soldiers who have served or are currently serving.
"We have a sacred covenant with veterans that says when they sacrifice for all of us, then we will be there for them and their families," he said.
This year, he added, marks the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I, which claimed the lives of 116,000 American men and women, but, unfortunately, was not "the war to end all wars" as so many had hoped.
Walden and Dotterrer echoed Wyden's sentiments, urging everyone present not just to remember the fallen but also to give their families a hearty "thank you."
"This is about recognizing those who have given so much for us," Walden said. "And taking a few moments out of what some say is a 'holiday weekend' to say 'thanks' and to honor their service and their sacrifice and to tell their survivors and families that we are deeply appreciative and deeply in their debt."
Dotterrer reminded everyone that freedom is not the product of the Declaration of Independence but rather the blood of American forces.
"Hold our fallen sailors, soldiers, airmen and Marines close to your hearts," he said. "And, in addition to honoring the memory of those who gave their lives for our country, I urge you to reach out to their families, to the living veterans and servicemen and women who continue to defend our freedom."
At the close of the ceremony, the Southern Oregon Scottish Bagpipe Band played a beautiful yet somber arrangement of "Amazing Grace" before the Marine Crops League retired the colors.
After the crowd broke, some meandered up and down the rows of graves.
Dana Gowen said he was searching the headstones for others, like him, who had served in Vietnam.
In September 1969, Gowen, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, was serving in Kien Hoa, Vietnam, when his "hooch" or hut was hit by a rocket.
"It blew me tumbling across the floor," he said, adding that he was fortunate that it struck 8 feet above him.
Gowen, who currently lives in Orlando, Florida, makes a point to attend a Memorial Day observance no matter where he's at.
"I came here to make sure these people get the proper honors because when we came back, we didn't get that," he said.
Adam and Regina Davis braved the warmer temperatures Monday with their four children, ages 11, 8, 6 and 2. This was their first year attending the ceremony, but they hope to make it a tradition in their family.
"We want our kids to understand the value of their freedom and what soldiers sacrificed," Adam Davis said.
"And what patriotism means," Regina Davis added.
Former U.S. Army Major Brett Keller served two tours in Iraq and was present Monday with his wife and 7-year-old son.
"It's important to teach our young ones the meaning of today," he said.
Reach Mail Tribune reporter Teresa Thomas at 541-776-4497 or email@example.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/teresathomas_mt.