From the river to the sea, from the church sanctuary to the school gymnasium, Franklin County paid tribute to its veterans with a trove of salutes last weekend.
With inspiring words from speakers who ranged from Navy fighter pilot Gordon Hunter, who flew missions over North Vietnam soon after graduating college in California on an ROTC scholarship, to Army sergeant Charles Wilson, who earned a GED in the service not long after being drafted while still in teenager to go handle explosives in the tunnel of Southeast Asia, the tributes over Veterans Day weekend spoke of the varied experiences of those who have served in the military.
And all had one unifying theme, that veterans represent the best in this nation, men and women willing to sacrifice as much as their very life to preserve the freedoms and liberties we enjoy.
“We live in the greatest nation on the planet Earth,” Wilson told a packed house at Apalachicola’s First Baptist Church, where the students from the First Baptist Christian School presented their annual program Monday morning.
“We have freedoms other people only dream about,” said Wilson, who along with buddies Alvin Martina, Shorty Dasher and Pete Adams, left Apalachicola on a bus more than 50 years ago to head to Vietnam.
Of that quartet, only Wilson and Adams are still with us, and the two shared some quick jabs and fond memories during Wilson’s remarks as guest speaker.
“It is an honor to live here,” said Wilson. “But with that honor comes responsibility. (These freedoms) came by men and women who were willing to go and fight.
Small and wiry, at only 118 pounds, the Army decided Wilson would be a demolition expert, and to crawl through tunnels to set explosives that would blow them up, a job that carried a short life expectancy.
“But I had a secret weapon and they didn’t know it,” he said.
That weapon was Wilson’s grandmother, a devoted member of the Pentecostal church, whose fervent prayers for her grandson were constant while he served in 1967-68. “They could hear her praying all the way out to the street,” he said.
The First Baptist program :in Honor of Veterans Past, Present, and Future” featured the traditional assortment f schoolchildren dressed in red, white and blue, singing patriotic songs, reading Scriptural references and reciting informative passages that added historic background to the meaning of Veterans Day.
Following Wilson’s remarks, Caden Allen solemnly read a list of those from Franklin County who have died in war, and Oscar medley and Louis Van Vleet were joined by young veteran Bobby Carroll in folding the American flag. Pastor Frank Gonzalez closed the service with prayer.
The weekend began Sunday afternoon also at a church, where the Bay Area Choral Society presented a “Sentimental Journey Through Song" concert at the Carrabelle Christian Center to recollect memories of the World War II era.
With fewer than 400,000 American World War II veterans still alive, it is increasingly rare to see such servicemen and women at local programs, with Korean War vets almost as infrequent, but two were honored at the Franklin County School District’s Veterans Day program Tuesday morning.
Willie McNair, Sr., age 100, from Port St. Joe, who served in the Army during World War II, sat alongside his son, Willie McNair, Jr, a veteran of the Army National Guard.
A few seat away sat 90-year-old Fred Aman, from Carrabelle, who served with the Army’s armored field artillery from 1951-53, a stint that included handling cannons as they headed 20 miles north of the 38th parallel, the border between North and South Korea.
The smoothly-run program, with crystal clear audio and sharp visuals overhead, in the high school gymnasium, overseen by Delores Croom, featured the combined talents of students from both the Franklin County Schools and the Apalachicola Bay Charter School.
After the Port St. Joe Navy Junior ROTC presented the colors, Angeline Stanley sang the National Anthem and Cale Barber gave the invocation, the program, emceed by Eli Whaley and Honesti Williams, moved through patriotic song and story, with music at times from the high school band.
The ABC School joined with FCS students in the program, which was highlighted by two honorees, Apalachicola’s Anthony Taranto, a 42-year veteran of the Army National Guard, and St. George Island’s Larry Hale, who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart during his six years of service as a Marine in Vietnam.
A slide show was presented of their years of service, and both men and their wives were presented a token of appreciation from the district.
The service closed with remarks from Principal Michael Sneed, a young veteran of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, who made a special point in his words of gratitude to thank all the military families who have stood by the veterans in their ranks.
On Monday morning, a large crowd gathered at the lighthouse on St. George Island for a Veterans Day program. The Williston Army Junior ROTC color guard drove house north to take part in the ceremony, which was emceed by Army vet Bob Heide.
After Megan Lamb sang the National Anthem, and Navy vet Ben Williams offered the invocation, Skip Kemp introduced Hunter, a Navy lieutenant commander who flew as part of the mission in which the late senator John McCain was shot down, and later imprisoned by the North Vietnamese.
Hunter recounted that his stint with the Navy included a brush with a pair of the worst tragedies in Navy history, a 1966 fire aboard the USS Oriskany that took the lives of 44 men, and a 1967 fire aboard the USS Forrestal in which 134 sailors died.
Hunter, who is active as a volunteer with jailhouse inmates as well as the Apalachicola airport, reminded listeners that veterans often form the backbone of their communities after their years of service are complete. He saluted his fellow veterans for their contribution to keeping America safe and free.
A second Gordon, Army veteran Gordon Adkins, followed with a singing of “God Bless America,” with the Rev. Eric Zile, from Trinity Episcopal, offering the benediction.
On Monday afternoon, at Veterans Memorial Plaza, at the foot of the Three Servicemen Statue South, Big Bend Hospice offered a Service of Remembrance, led by Ed Lyon, a spiritual counselor of the hospice.
Ashley Hall, a music therapist, offered songs on her guitar throughout the service, which opened with a prayer by Pastor Scotty Lolley, from Living Waters Assembly of God.
The service focused both on the loss of loved ones, as well as the lives of veterans, with a special emphasis on the 75th anniversary of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Jack Pittman, who oversees the hospice’s Veteran Valor volunteer program, offered a history of D-Day, and a table was set up offering memorabilia supplied by Eastpoint’s Duffie Harrison, whose father took part in that amphibious landing, and whose wife, Susie, serves on the hospice’s Franklin County Advisory Council.
The service included a recitation of gratitude for those who have passed, the lighting of candles of grief and rejoicing by Ginny Griner and Tabaitha Ray, both also on the advisory council, and Cara Brown and an invitation to place memorial shells in a small wooden boat at a table in front of the statue.