Memorial Day: ‘A day to pause and remember’
(Following is the speech Chris Ladd, keynote speaker, gave at Wilton's Memorial Day ceremony at Wilton Congregational Church.)
Today is Memorial Day. It’s a day to pause and remember the service men and women who were killed or died in service to our country.
I served as an attack helicopter pilot in the Marine Corps from 1976 to 2000. With the exception of the first Gulf War, this was a relatively peaceful period. However, on a recent Memorial Day I paused to remember and count the number of men I personally knew who died or were killed during that period.
The number was 43, only 5 of whom were killed during combat operations. The remainder were killed while in training here in the United States or while serving overseas in forward deployed units. It was a dramatic reminder of the price paid to protect our freedom and way of life.
This country has always had brave, patriotic men and women who were willing to risk their very lives to defend their belief in this county. Some paid the ultimate price. Today I want to share my memory of 3 of those men. They were all young, vibrant, accomplished men with hopes and dreams of the future. I knew two of them personally.
The first was John Pagel. A big man, he stood 6’2” and weighed in at 230 pounds. His nickname and flight call sign was Bauca. He never explained where it came from, but nobody ever called him anything but Bauca.
He grew up in Janesville, Wisconsin and attended the University of Wisconsin where he excelled on the football field. After college he had a tryout with the Chicago bears. In the Marine Corps he earned his wings of gold and became an attack helicopter pilot. At times it was comical watching him cram his massive body into the cockpit.
We served in the same squadron and became friends. While serving with a Marine Amphibious Unit deployed to the Mediterranean Sea, he was killed in a helicopter crash in Spain. He was buried in his hometown of Janesville, Wisconsin.
I served on an honor guard at his funeral. We met and felt the pain of his family and friends over the loss of such a gregarious individual. When we met his parents, both of whom were barely 5 feet tall, we learned that Bauca had been adopted, something he never shared with any of us. He left behind a young wife and two young children.
The second was Vincent Smith, flight call sign Vinny. He grew up in a military family as the oldest of nine children. His father was a Marine aviator and was at the time a General Officer. Vinny graduated from the Naval Academy and followed his father’s path into the Marine Corps and aviation.
I met Vinny when he joined the Marine Attack Helicopter Squadron I was assigned to in New River, NC. We worked together, flew together, played on the squadron football team together, and grew to become good friends.
Some time after I was transferred to the Naval Aviation Training Command, Vinny volunteered to serve with Marine ground forces as a Forward Air Controller. He was serving with the Multinational Peacekeeping forces in Beirut, Lebanon on Oct. 23rd, 1983 when a suicide terrorist exploded a truck bomb under the barracks housing the Marines. Vinny was one of the 241 Marines and Sailors killed in that attack. He is buried in the Quantico National Cemetery. He left behind a young wife and a baby daughter.
I did not personally know the third. I chose his story because he grew up here in Wilton. He was 24 and working as a machinist in Detroit, Michigan when he enlisted in the Marine Corps in May of 1917 soon after the United States entered World War I. He arrived in France in October 1917.
I read a letter his mother had written to the Commandant of the Marine Corps in December of that year saying she had received no news from her sons, both of whom were Marines, since their arrival in France.
The Commandant wrote back that her sons were healthy and would write soon. I would have liked to have heard the chewing out his commanding officer or sergeant major gave him as they directed the young Corporal to write his mother so that the Commandant could get back to his busy wartime duties. I’m sure it would have been colorful.
He was killed in action in early June 1918 as the Marines fought in the bloody battle surrounding Belleau Woods. He is buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery in Belleau France. His name was James Whipple and American Legion Post 86 here in Wilton is named in his honor.
All of the veterans here today, and many of you here at this ceremony, could share similar stories of young men and women whose lives were cut short in service to their country. I encourage you to do so. Keep their memory alive. Their sacrifice deserves to be remembered that’s what Memorial Day is all about. I want to thank all of you here today for spending time on this beautiful morning to honor those men and women who gave their lives to preserve the freedoms we enjoy today.