American Legion service surpasses six decades

When the Veterans Day parade steps off from the library at 10:15 on Sunday, Nov. 11, among those marching will be Ernest “Bing” Ventres, a 61-year member of the James B. Whipple American Legion Post 86.

The parade, presented by the legion, will make its way to the Veterans Memorial Green where a ceremony will take place, including the reading of the winning entry in a school essay contest. The ceremony is expected to end at 11, marking the 100th anniversary of the armistice that took place at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month 100 years ago. At that time, several Wilton churches will toll their bells 21 times for peace, just as church bells tolled in France to spread the word that the “War to End All Wars” had finally ended.

Ventres, who was honored for his lengthy service at the post earlier this year, is an Air Force veteran who perhaps is best known for placing flags on the graves of Wilton’s veterans for Memorial Day. But his service to the town and its veterans goes well beyond that.

A native of New Canaan, while in high school Ventres joined the Connecticut Air National Guard despite descending from a long line of sea captains “from Haddam to Higganum” on his father’s side. When he graduated high school, Ventres’ unit — the 103rd AC&W (Aircraft and Warning) Squadron was federalized in the early ’50s.

“It was a radar unit and we were sent to Otis Air National Guard Base at Camp Edwards on the Cape in Massachusetts,” Ventres told The Bulletin at post headquarters last week. “We were scheduled to go to Korea two times but our orders were canceled,” he said.

Instead, their objective was air defense on the East Coast, patrolling from New York to Canada to keep foreign aircraft from U.S. shores. At one point they intercepted a “big Russian reconnaissance plane,” which Ventres’ unit deterred, but where it wound up he had no idea.

Ventres completed his service in 1954 and married the late Joan Vion of Wilton in 1955. Her stepfather was one of the men who built the American Legion post building and encouraged Ventres to join.

“Pop hoped I’d help keep the post alive,” he said, noting older members of the 35-year-old post were dying off. Ventres became one of the youngest members and served as adjutant from 1959 to 1960, and as treasurer, before rising to the post of commander in 1973. It was a questionable honor as the post faced severe financial problems. The problems persisted when he became commander again from 1973 to 1975 and again from 1986 to 2009.

Money to run the building was raised with tag sales and dinners put on by the few women who belonged to the auxiliary.

“At one point we asked each of the members for $20 to heat the building,” he said. The building used an expensive steam heating system. Ventres, who worked in the fuel oil business, led an effort to convert to a less expensive oil-heat system.

Ventres also worked to build up membership which was made up primarily of World War II veterans. One of the veterans he recruited was Tom Moore, who is now the post’s adjutant. Most Vietnam War veterans were not interested in joining, Ventres said, but he offered the post building as a meeting place for members receiving mental health services and some of them signed up.

The post experienced a turnaround “about 15 years ago when Don Hazzard took over and got some younger blood here,” Ventres said. With the closure of the Norwalk National Guard and fewer veterans living in Wilton, membership will always be a challenge, he said.

For the past 20 years, Ventres, 86, has taken on the task of placing American flags at the graves of each of Wilton’s known veterans. He estimates there are at least 350 in the five cemeteries he visits each year just before Memorial Day. To make the job of spotting graves of veterans not so marked easier, he has attached gold-colored medallions to each. They can be easily seen when they glint in the sunlight. The past several years Ventres has received assistance in placing the flags.

Ventres also developed the post’s flag retirement ceremony and has “put a lot of Veterans Day parades together.” He also served on the Memorial Day parade committee for 20 years, chairing it for three. The committee took over parade duties from the town some years ago.

Ventres, who has lived in Wilton since 1955, revealed the origin of his nickname, Bing. The moniker was assigned to him by an uncle when he was 5.

“I did a good imitation of Bing Crosby,” he said, “and it’s hung on ever since.”