By Marimar McNaughton and Pam Creech
Hundreds of small American flags waved in the breeze as civilians and uniformed military personnel filed onto the grounds of the National Cemetery on Market Street and the Battleship North Carolina for Memorial Day Observances during the morning and evening hours Monday, May 25.
The cemetery ceremony marked the 50th anniversary of the beginning of American engagement in the Vietnam War and the battleship ceremony was the 50th such annual observance on the decks of the state memorial.
Retired Army Reserves Master Sgt. Rossie Nance, North Carolina president of the Vietnam Veterans Association, delivered the keynote address in honor of the Vietnam veteran.
“The Vietnam veteran is so special to me because 58,000 of our comrades died,” Nance said. “There actually were no frontlines in Vietnam like there were in other wars. All service men and women were subject to harm. Regardless of their training, where they served, in the front, in the rear, they could strike at any time. Regardless of day or night, rockets, mortars, rifles . . . booby traps and so on; it was a mixed array of everything.”
The Vietnam War, Nance said, was the most turbulent time of the 20th century, changing the country socially, politically and militarily. When soldiers returned home, it was to a divided America, and the war of acceptance to be fought.
“The Vietnam veteran was caught in the middle of an ungrateful, sometimes shameful America,” he said.
Of the 3.4 million American men and women who served in Vietnam, Nance said 300,000 were wounded in action; 1,700 are missing in action. There were 1,200 prisoners of war, 500 were later released, the remainder are still missing. After returning home, 100,000 Vietnam veterans committed suicide. 75,000 Vietnam veterans are currently disabled.
Preceding Nance’s comments, a bell ringing ceremony called the names of local veterans who died since Memorial Day 2014. The services that closed with a coronet solo of “Taps” had opened with a violin solo of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The national anthem was also performed during the battleship service by Amanda Moore of Duke Ladd Music. An invocation by Father Ron Abrams of St. James’ Parish followed.
Capt. Terry A. Bragg, U.S. Navy veteran and executive director of Battleship North Carolina, took the stage to give a brief history of the battleship.
“She now serves as a testament of service for WWII veterans, as well as a symbol of 10,000 North Carolinians who made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country,” Bragg said.
Bragg introduced Capt. Wilbur D. Jones Jr., U.S. Navy veteran and chairman of the USS North Carolina Battleship Commission, and North Carolina Senator Richard Burr.
“Memorial Day, a day of remembrance, is not the start of summer. It’s not the day the pools open. It’s not the day you open the beach house. It’s a day to remember the sacrifices of so many,” Burr said. “In WWII, we fought a horrendous war, and it was Roosevelt who, after that war, was challenged with how to move a nation forward. It was leadership and vision that Roosevelt was able to display to the American people.”
Burr continued by discussing the present.
“Today, the grandchildren of those brave souls that manned this ship continue that vision,” he said. “Today, on this remembrance day, let’s think about the people who gave the ultimate sacrifice.”
Bragg returned to the stage to introduce Maj. Gen. Gregory A. Lusk, Adjutant General of North Carolina.
“Each day on the Battleship North Carolina, we honor our military members, both past and present,” Bragg said. “Each year, we are honored by a senior military officer from one of our armed forces.”
Lusk requested audience members use their imagination.
“Think back about 70 years ago to what was going on this very day. This ship had sailed around the Pacific on a never-ending island campaign. . . . It’s not hard to imagine just how busily the crew, 1,000 strong, were operating above and below this deck,” he said. “They were willing to do whatever was needed to be done at that time to bring this horrendous WWII to an end. … There is no better venue to hold a Memorial Day commemoration than right here on this very deck, and all of us need to do everything that we can to ensure that this battleship stays in place for many generations yet to come.”
Lusk’s remarks were followed by New Hanover County Board of Commission Chairman Jonathan Barfield Jr. and Brunswick County Board of Commission Chairman Scott Phillips’ presentation of a memorial wreath of red and white flowers, which was tossed into the Cape Fear River.
The service concluded with “Echo Taps” played by Duke Ladd Music.