Memorial Day speech: Hundreds from Wilton have defended our country
Thank you for the invitation. I am honored to be here, and again respectful of all of those around me who have given much more for our country than I have.
A lot has happened since the last time I spoke here, in 2002. As some friends have said, “The world has changed.” For one thing, there is much more emphasis on security everywhere we go. Acts of terror are a constant threat, and not just in airports and big cities. Another big difference is all of the social media and constant communication on handheld devices that we didn’t have 11 years ago. As I came up the road in the parade, I saw many people taking pictures with their smartphones. An important side benefit of this technology is that the Boston bomber was caught in three days thanks to all of the photos that were taken.
We are here on this Memorial Day to honor and remember those who died in the service of our country. Two and a half years ago, we created and dedicated the Veterans Memorial Green in Wilton Center, a lasting memorial to those 86 Wilton men who died in wars from the French and Indian in 1758 to Iraq in 2006. Their names are carved in stone on six monuments. There is a story behind every one of them and I will mention a few today. Separately, the Wiltonians who were lost in the 9/11 attack are honored by a tree and plaque in front of town hall and by a statue at Our Lady of Fatima.
But first, I have to mention the two recent terrible events that have hit close to home. We all know friends or family who were affected by the Boston Marathon explosion and the Sandy Hook school tragedy. One was clearly a planned act of terror, but the Newtown shooting was apparently carried out by a single individual. Neither of these involved our military forces but I believe we need to take a moment today to honor and remember those brave individuals — police, EMTs, teachers who died trying to save their children, and all of the other first responders that we so depend on. We hope and pray that we won’t have more of this.
After 2002, our country shifted its military attention to Iraq and then back to Afghanistan. Other countries in the world now appear to be potential threats. Much of the Middle East remains unstable. It is not easy any longer to tell the good guys from the bad. And our men and women in the service must be prepared for whatever happens.
Over 300 years, literally hundreds from Wilton have defended and fought for our country. We had over 300 Wilton men in the American Revolution, 20 of whom died. Their names are on the monument at the Veterans Green.
Even before the Revolution, there were over 60 Wilton men in the fight against French and Indians 20 years before the Declaration of Independence. Ten of those men lost their lives. After the Revolution, in the War of 1812, 50 Wilton men were in the 34th CT militia defending the Connecticut shoreline. Several of them are buried right here in the old section of this cemetery, including Col. William Belden and Major William Dudley.
Over 200 Wilton men fought bravely in the Civil War to preserve the union. It was our most deadly war, both for Wilton and for the country. Wilton, a town of 2,200 residents, suffered the loss of 34 men. Nationwide, one out of every six soldiers died.
About 100 from Wilton were in World War I, including two who died. Over 400 Wilton men and women served in World War II, and 10 lost their lives. Over 80 Wiltonians served in Korea and about the same number in Vietnam. We had servicemen and women in Desert Storm, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq, where Nick Madaras lost his life in 2006.
We owe thanks to the American Legion for once again placing fresh flags on the veterans’ graves. In this cemetery alone, over 250 veterans’ graves are honored and remembered.
At the time of the Revolution, Wilton was still part of Norwalk. The most eminent Revolutionary officer from Norwalk, Colonel Matthew Mead, lived in Wilton. He was born in a house, rebuilt but still there on Ridgefield Road at the corner of DeForest. He commanded the first company of men raised in Norwalk at the outset of the war. Mead served with distinction throughout the war for seven years, and retired to become a leader in Wilton’s independence from Norwalk in 1802. Our other distinguished Revolutionary officer, Major Samuel Comstock, is buried here at Hillside a few rows behind me.
Wilton’s 300 men in the Revolution was remarkable considering that our total population at the time was less than 1,500. Wilton men were in every major battle after Lexington and Concord. Of those who died during the war, the only one known to be buried in Wilton is Ezekiel Hawley, killed in the Battle of Harlem Heights in 1776. He was brought home and buried in Sharp Hill Cemetery.
Did this one life make any difference? Yes indeed! Ezekiel Hawley’s daughter, born six months after his death, grew up and married an Olmstead and named her son Hawley Olmstead. Hawley Olmstead graduated from Yale in 1816, at a time when very few people went beyond eighth grade. He then founded the Wilton Academy, a private school which educated hundreds of youth during the 1800s, including a future Civil War general and a future governor of Connecticut. Olmstead’s great-grandson, Timothy Merwin, owned the land that is now Merwin Meadows. Ezekiel Hawley, who died fighting for independence so long ago, had no way of knowing that he would leave this enduring legacy for us. He was one of many who helped to build and protect our country.
Wilton men fought against Gen. Tryon in 1777 when he invaded Connecticut, burned Danbury, and marched back through Wilton. It is the only time Wilton was invaded by a foreign power. There are 52 Revolutionary veterans buried in Wilton, 18 here at Hillside, 18 more at Sharp Hill.
At the outset of the Civil War, many in our state did not support the war as they did not want to disturb the business trade with the South. But in Georgetown Major Miller organized 86 men into the “Lincoln Guards,” which became Company E of the 23rd CT Regiment. They had trained and were ready, and they served with distinction. Of the 34 Wilton men who died in the Civil War, 12 were killed in battle, three died in the notorious Andersonville prison, and the rest from sickness and disease. The grave of Wilbur Morgan, who was mortally wounded at Gettysburg, 150 years ago this July, is next to a very large cedar tree over to my left.
Wilton men were also at Antietam, Petersburg, New Orleans, and Richmond. There were five black soldiers from Wilton in the so-called Colored Regiments, and three of them died in the war. One of those, Henry Dullivan, is buried in St. Matthew’s Cemetery. John King, a black veteran who survived the war, is buried here, near the right side of the main driveway.
Many of the names on the WWI memorial plaque at the Legion Hall are familiar to us. Our Legion post, founded after that war, was named for James Whipple, a marine corporal who was killed in the battle of Belleau Wood, France in June 1918. This was the first war in which Wilton women served, as nurses. The names of Ann Hardon and Lois Martin are on the plaque.
During World War II, 400 Wilton men and women were in the service, out of a population less than 3,000. One of those lost was Martyn Ficke, Wilton’s first Eagle Scout. Martyn was an infantry PFC and an expert marksman in the 3rd Army under General Patton. He was a machine gunner in the lead jeep on patrol near Edelsfeld, Germany when he was killed in a fierce battle on April 21, 1945, less than three weeks before the war ended in Europe. He was awarded the Silver Star and he is the only Wilton soldier honored with burial in the Arlington National Cemetery.
In the Korean conflict, over 80 from Wilton served, and Leonard Bennett died. The Vietnam War was much more costly to Wilton; eight of our young men were lost in less than three years. Four are buried here at Hillside — Peter Johnson, Stephen Perry, Howard Pyle, and Warren Vought.
In all of the more recent conflicts, Wilton has always sent men and women to serve, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Nick Madaras, a PFC with the Army 4th Infantry Division was killed on Sept. 3, 2006 by a bomb while on foot patrol in the Iraqi town of Baqouba. He is buried here and is remembered with the “Kick for Nick” soccer ball collection bin at the Legion Hall and by the home in Bridgeport for women veterans.
We are surrounded by many memorials and flags marking graves of those who have served. Every one has a story behind it. Take some time and visit them all. Wilton has served from before the Revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan. On this Memorial Day 2013, let us be thankful for all of our veterans, living and dead, and honor and remember the sacrifices they have made for us.