Memorial Day event celebrates the memories of American heroes
Published 3:36 pm, Wednesday, May 27, 2015
John Calitri, of New Canaan, served in the Vietnam War running fuel, food, and other supplies from Qui Nhon in the middle of South Vietnam toward the front lines as part of the 597th Transportation Battalion. He left the military in 1967.
On Monday on Oenoke Ridge, Calitri stood dressed in his khaki uniform outside St. Mark's Episcopal Church, recalling his service, including the sound of Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters that buzzed over his truck, riding shotgun and deterring attacks on his truck, he said.
"We were carrying their supplies, so they looked out for us," said Calitri, commander of the New Canaan Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 653. "It felt like (the helicopters) were right on top of us."
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On Monday, Calitri remembered two friends who never came back to New Canaan: Army Staff Sgt. Bob Knight, who was killed 10 days before his discharge in 1968, and 2nd Lt. Rick Bickford, who died when he was struck by the blades of a helicopter during a landing in bad weather.
"I think about those guys," the 70-year-old Calitri said. "Since 1968, I think I've missed one parade. It's an important day to show respect for veterans."
Calitri was one of scores of U.S. military veterans who stepped off as part of New Canaan's annual Memorial Day parade to remember those who died fighting for the United States. Hundreds lined Oenoke Ridge and Main Street for the parade, which began at St. Mark's Episcopal Church and ended with a ceremony at Lakeview Cemetery. The parade included veterans and local civic groups, marching bands, local Girl Scout troops and more than two dozen marching units.
The parade grand marshal was 87-year-old Ruth Gutt, a first lieutenant Air Force nurse who served from 1950 to 1953 during the Korean War era in Libya and has lived in town since the 1960s.
Gutt said she wanted to serve in Korea, but was instead sent to Tripoli, where she met her husband.
"I think it is a great honor to be grand marshal of the parade," Gutt said.
At the remembrance ceremony at the cemetery, the keynote speaker, Boyd Harden, a Marine Corps veteran, made comments about the importance of recognizing the scope of the sacrifice veterans have made throughout the country's history.
Harden, a 1983 graduate of New Canaan High School, served in the Marines from 1989 to 1997, including a deployment as a helicopter pilot commander during Operation Restore Hope and Quick Draw, two military missions to assist delivery of humanitarian relief to Somalia in 1994.
At the podium, Harden spoke about the Battle of Iwo Jima, considered by many historians to be a pivotal U.S. victory against Japan in the waning months of World War II, and shared his memories of a grim visit to the Pacific island 20 years ago while still an active duty Marine, which cemented his patriotic feelings about Memorial Day.
Touring the island, Harden viewed the underground fortifications, pillbox bunkers and other facilities that allowed the Imperial Japanese Army to make the U.S. pay a heavy price for capturing the island.
Holding up a vial of the black sulphurous sands of Iwo Jima, Harden told the crowd that before victory, nearly 7,000 Marines died fighting the Japanese defenders there over 36 days. Roughly one in three Marines was wounded in the engagement.
"Every Marine who stepped on the beach head confronted the possibility of death, but they did not hesitate and did what they had to do," Harden said. "I have never forgotten standing on the beaches of Iwo Jima and processing the incredible bravery of my fellow Marines and U.S. citizens."
Acts like consciously desecrating the American flag and being blase about the level of freedom Americans enjoy doesn't make sense to Harden in the context of understanding the sacrifices of fallen veterans, he said.
At the end of his remarks, Harden summoned Steve Benko, the town's parks and recreation director, to the podium and revealed he is the nephew of Marine Pfc. Lewis Gordon Benko, one of the casualties of the first day of combat at Iwo Jima.
Benko died of a mortar wound as part of one of the very first waves of American soldiers to land, Harden said.
"If this doesn't stir your patriotic juices, then you should rethink your citizenship," Harden said. "His relatives still reside in New Canaan and some of Pfc. Benko's family friends and Marine Corps buddies are actually here today."