Claremonters gather to honor fallen heroes
Memorial Day 2017 was a banner southern California day, dry with warm temperatures and clear skies.
For the 100 or so people gathered at Oak Park Cemetery, however, the picnics would have to wait as they gathered around the stone monument to “The Defenders of our Freedoms” for Claremont’s annual Memorial Day Service.
Sponsored by the American Legion Keith Powell Post 78, the City of Claremont and the Friends of the Oak Park Cemetery, the hour-long traditional ceremony recognized the men and women who died serving America in the armed forces.
The service has changed only a little over the past few years. This year, Post Commander Robert Ainsworth decided to make a statement. Alarmed at the rapidly decreasing number of World War II veterans remaining in the ranks of the post, he dedicated most of his comments to their service to the country.
According to Mr. Ainsworth, remaining World War II veterans among Post 78’s ranks include: Chuck Farritor, Bill Hayes, Ralph Riffenburgh, Richard Kirkendall, Kenneth Whipple, Judd Ingram and Tom Donaldson. In addition, the post has a new member who served at the end of the war, retired Colonel Margaret Phillips.
Mr. Farritor, Mr. Hayes and Ms. Phillips were in attendance, and as honored guests, had special seats at the front of the crowd.
“When I joined Post 78 five years ago, we had a large number of WW II veterans in our ranks, including three or four Pearl Harbor survivors…Those who won the great conflict were not citizens with strong military background or inclination. They were just simple citizen soldiers, men and women of great faith and resolve,” Mr. Ainsworth said in his remarks.
“Out of that military force of several million men and women who paid such a heavy price in defeating the greatest evil of our times, we are now sadly watching these last living heroes rapidly fading before our eyes.”
Coincidentally, Mr. Farritor’s and Mr. Hayes’ stories were remarkably similar. Both tried to enter the Navy’s V-12 program, which was designed to supplement the number of commissioned officers in the war between 1943 and 1946. However, both were turned away, one because of a medical condition and the other because the program was full. As a result, Mr. Hayes in the greater LA area, and Mr. Farritor in Nebraska, signed up for the Merchant Marines because, as Mr. Hayes put it, “They would take anyone with two arms and two legs.”
Mr. Hayes recalled a harrowing experience when a Japanese submarine tried for several hours to get a bead on the liberty ship he was stationed on as they crossed the Pacific heading for the to the Panama Canal.
Mr. Farritor, who was Honored Citizen in last year’s Fourth of July parade, served in both World War II and Korea, where he nearly died in an accident aboard his ship.
A newcomer to Claremont, Colonel Phillips’ career spanned 33 years, beginning in 1945. She was stationed in Hawaii, Japan, Germany, Vietnam and South Korea. Before she retired in 1978 she was Chief of the Department of Nursing at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado.
Perhaps the most touching moment came when Mr. Ainsworth invited all children in attendance to come forward so they could shake hands with the three veterans from “the greatest generation.”
As the youths returned to their seats, he said that he hoped that one day they would be able to tell their children that they had thanked a World War II veteran.
Posting and retiring of the colors was delivered flawlessly by four young women from the NJROTC Color Guard at Lutheran High School.
Claremont Mayor Larry Schroeder and president of the Friends of Oak Park Cemetery Nelson Scherer gave short speeches.
The service ended with the Scottish Lament, which is played every year by volunteer bagpiper Mike Terry, followed by the playing of taps by Claremont native bugler Doug Mendelsohn. Mr. Mendelsohn’s father, Bill Mendelsohn, is on active duty in Afghanistan.