WENDELL — American Legion Post 148 commander called out a series of American conflicts. With each war, a different set of veterans rose to their feet.
“World War II,” Ray called. Four men stood up. “Korean War,” Ray said. Seven men rose. “Vietnam War,” Ray called out. 10 more stood.
When he finished calling the roll, Ray made a point of recognizing one war he didn’t call: World War I. “We didn’t call out World War I because, well, they’re mostly all gone now,” Ray said. “Veterans are passing from us at the rate of 1,100 per day. May the ceremony today honor the memory of our fallen friends.”
His remarks kicked off a parade of speakers who noted American Legion efforts to promote Americanism, read poems about soldiers and recalled the bravery of lesser-known soldiers like William Stacey, who died last year in Afghanistan during his fourth deployment to the Middle East and Emil Kapaun, a priest who braved capture by enemy soldiers to stay with his men.
But the highlight of Sunday’s ceremony came when Ray recounted the unopened bottle of champaign and Doolittle’s Raiders.
Famed for their near-suicidal bombing of Tokyo, the team of 80 men accomplished their mission with just eight airmen captured. Of the men on the team, 62 survived the war and later began holding reunions. Part of their pledge to each other was that the last surviving member of the team would open a special bottle of champaign and drink a toast to the other members of the team. Those reunions continued until last month, when the last two surviving members of the team agreed that they would no longer old public reunions. They opened the bottle in a private ceremony and toasted their comrades alone.
But Sunday’s observance was anything but private. More than 100 people crowded under a picnic shelter behind the American Legion Post Home on Wendell Boulevard and listened reverently as veterans remembered the sacrifices of their fellow veterans.
And the crowd celebrated the achievements of 14 students honored by the American Legion during the course of the year through a host of activities including Boys State, Girls State, the Legion’s Oratorical Contest and scholarship winners.
Those students included: Christian Garder, Avery Maggiolo, Abimael Torrez Rivera, Emma Gardner, Kristuline Harris, Juan Zetina, Jackson Oliver and Jessica Hagan, all of East Wake High School; Michael Hurley and Ashley Jones of Corinth Holders High School, Ashleigh Pickett and Christian Drother of East Wake Academy and Garrett Potter and Allison Barnes of East Wake Middle School.
And, when all the talking was done, the crowd celebrated in the most American of ways. They sat down to a hot dog supper prepared by the veterans themselves.