“Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” – General Douglas MacArthur, April 19, 1951
A soldier of much accomplishment who managed to get himself fired by a World War I veteran and president of the United States, Harry S. Truman, MacArthur, of course, was speaking of himself fading from the limelight and the countless veterans of the nation’s wars who survived their comrades.
Old soldiers may fade away in a sense, but young soldiers have died and continue to die in far-off battlefields. On Meorial Day Monday, veterans, families and friends gathered in front of the Veterans Memorial Building in downtown Hollister to pay tribute to the men and women who served, and those who died. While there were one or two World War II and Korean War veterans, the majority were those who served during the Vietnam War.
At the dedication of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington in 1982, there were 57,939 names of those who served between 1959 and 1975. But names continue to be added to the wall as veterans die from their wounds. Today, there are 58,939 names on the wall. But as the living honor the memories of those who died in service of the nation, many more must be remembered because Memorial Day at one time was known as Decoration Day, which originated after the Civil War in 1868, and was founded by the Grand Army of the Republic, an organization of Union veterans.
Nearly half a million military personnel died in the Civil War, almost half of all those killed during all the wars since then. Counting the Civil War, the Spanish-American War in Cuba, World Wars I and II, the Korean War, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and the War on Terror, 1,177,244 military personal have died in combat or from their wounds afterwards. This does not even take into account the growing number of veterans—22 a day—who commit suicide, according to the U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs.
Considering the staggering number who have died on behalf of the United States, and in particular those who perished within the lifetimes of their friends, those very same “old soldiers,” who gathered at the Veterans Memorial Building, it’s no wonder Bernie Ramirez has choked up with emotion every time he stood before the crowds each year to lead the ceremony.
Ask anyone who has served in the military or been in combat about what they remember most. If you watch their eyes closely you can almost see time fade away in an instant as they are taken back to a distant battlefield or aboard a naval ship or far-off base. There is a reason Ramirez devotes many long hours not only to commanding VFW Post 9242, but organizing events to pay tribute to those presently serving with banners hanging along the downtown streets, as well as those who have served beyond measure in the past.
Ramirez was in the infantryman in the Army, serving in Vietnam, 1969-70. He not only remembers what happened, he remembers the exact day it happened, May 8, 1970, when his two friends were killed, one as the day began and one as it ended. He was there and he saw both of them die, and he will never forget their names. When the moving Vietnam Memorial wall came to Hollister last year, he made a point of finding their names on it. It took a while, but when he finally did, it was an emotional moment as the two names were located close to one another, a stark indication of not only their proximity in time memorial, but of death.
Ramirez organizes the Memorial Day ceremony each year to remember his two friends and all those he never knew, but feels the fellowship with them for having served.
“It’s very painful,” he said after the ceremony. “We do this to make sure they’re never forgotten.”
Many in Hollister know who Ray Friend is. Some recognize him as he guides his motorcycle about town, wearing the leather vest that tells all of his membership in American Legion Post 69. Others may know that he is a city councilman. Most, though, don’t know he experienced the same loss of comrades, though he never set foot on a battlefield.
Friend was a young sailor aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise from 1965-70. He was a Damage Controlman 3rd Class Petty Officer, whose duty station was on the flight deck where he worked in crash and salvage operations.
One day Hell came to the Enterprise in the form of exploding bombs and 27 of his fellow shipmates were killed. He, too, remembered the exact date, Jan. 18, 1968.
“This is for them,” he said of the memorial service, and then spoke of the tragedy: “We had a fire during a practice bomb run, so all the planes were loaded up and ready to go. Something happened on the flight deck that lit a fire under a wing tank on an A-4 (Skyhawk attack aircraft) and that started rockets going off. We had eleven 500-pound bombs go off on the flight deck. We lost 27 people in the matter of 30 minutes. That is why I am here today. There are also 58,000 lost in Vietnam that we’re here for, but my personal remembrance is for the guys we lost that day.”
Rick Barnard was in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 1969-71 in Vietnam. He was a combat photographer running the photo lab for the division. He still recalls his very first day as a combat photographer.
“There was a helicopter crash,” he said. “It was a Chinook and on the ground when I got there. It was still burning and the bodies were around it. I remember the sound. I remember the heat. I remember the smell. I remember it very well. Today means a lot in recognizing the guys here who have done the job for a long time, since World War II, as I can remember. It’s important that everybody pays tribute to them.”
Bob Duffy was in the Navy as an Aviation Metalsmith 2nd Class Petty Officer, 1965-69 in the Philippines and then a short time in Vietnam.
“I was an air crewman looking out the window of an airplane landing and seeing tracers coming up from two different sides,” he said of landing at Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. “I was wondering who was who. The first time I saw that happen it was a horrible sight, then it became normal after a while.”
Robert Deluna was Food Service Specialist in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division, 1974-77 at Fort Campbell, Kentucky. He remembers going to Germany as part of a military war games exercise.
Gordon Mechado, president of the Hollister Downtown Association, served as an artillery surveyor in the U.S. Marine Corps, 1960-64. His most vivid memory is of the brotherhood of the Marines.
Dick Gallagher was a BU2, or Builder 2nd Class Petty Officer, in the Navy SeeBees (construction battalion), 1988-93. He served in Gulfport, Miss., Okinawa, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. He said he liked, “Building runways for the marines in Saudi Arabia.”
Mike Pulido served in the U.S. Air Force, 1962-88 in the Far East, including Japan, Philippines and Guam, as well as in Virginia. He finished his career as a Master Sergeant working in aircraft maintenance. Of all the years of memories he surely must have, Pulido said his fondest was “…receiving chocolate chip cookies from home.”
George Nava, a member of VFW Honor Guard, was an infantryman in the Army in South Vietnam, 1967-68. All he could say about his time was, “A lot of combat.”
Hollister Fire Chief Bob Martin Del Campo, a third generation Marine, apparently liked the military so much he not only spent 33 years in it, he served in both the Army and the Marines, and is still in the Army Reserves as a Master Sergeant, as an Emergency Preparedness Liaison Officer. He was a firefighter in the Marines and a Combat Medic in the Army. Either as a reservist or active duty, he has been in the military since 1982. He served in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Korea, Okinawa, and the U.S.
“My memories, good and bad, are based on the camaraderie that was built in boot camp,” he said, and commented about the event, “I’m thankful for these guys for building a path and setting the precedence for all those who followed. I’m a third generation Marine and my son is a fourth-generation Marine. We perpetuate this way of life.”
Mark Medina, who is presently running for county supervisor, served in the Air Force Military Police, 1988-92, which included Operation Desert Shield, 1990-91. He remembers, “When our B-52s left Anderson Air Force Base in Guam to go to Diego Garcia to take part in Desert Shield.”
Ron Sanchez was in the Army’s 101st Airborne Division in Vietnam, and then went into Marines Recon Special Forces, also in Vietnam.
“I was in Vietnam in 1968, during the Tet Offensive, and then in 1970 and 71,” he said. “I’ll never forget the first time I went into combat. I was a little nervous. I never thought I’d be involved in such a thing in all my life, but with the training I received I was able to succeed and help myself and help others.”
During the Memorial Day ceremony banners were presented to the families of six active-duty military members: Nathan Larios, U.S. Air Force; Joseph Flores Jr., U.S. Air Force; Ben Cobb, U.S. Air Force; Mathew D. Figone, U.S. Air Force; Tyler Sullivan, U.S. Air Force; and Justin Rendon, U.S. Navy. The families placed the banners on light posts on 5th Street.
Speakers during the ceremony included: Joe Love, American Legion Post 69, Margie Barrios, District #1 County Supervisor, Shari Stevenson, Veteran Service Officer, and Joe Paul Gonzales, county clerk/auditor, whose brother was killed in Vietnam.
There were six memorial tiles placed in front of Veterans Memorial Building honoring veterans who have passed away: (No first name) McKight, Navy, World War II; Andrew “Chapo” Silva, Navy, World War II; L. Lemley, Navy, World War II; Shi William, Navy, Vietnam; Dale Brown, Air Force; Lyle D. Perez, Army, Vietnam.