BRATTLEBORO—Part celebration of the end of the pandemic, part reflection on a turbulent time in the United States, and part remembrance of the service of Vermonters in our nation’s wars, this year’s annual Memorial Day service on the Town Common was filled with many different emotions.
There was joy at being able to hold ceremonies unmasked and without restrictions, with the American Legion Band performing in public for first time in nearly two years. The May 31 service, hosted by American Legion Post 5, was one of the largest gatherings in years.
The guests of honor were a pair of local World War II heroes: Richard Hamilton of Brattleboro and James Carr of Bellows Falls.
Carr, 95, who was on the cover of the May 26 edition of Seven Days, served with the 112th Regiment of the 28th Infantry Division and survived some of the worst fighting of the European campaign in the Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge in the fall and winter of 1944-45.
Hamilton, 98, was a radio operator and waist gunner with the 91st Bomb Group in the 401st Air Squadron of the Eighth Air Force in England. His B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany on his ninth combat mission, on July 20, 1944, and he spent the remainder of the war in a German prison camp.
The two men didn’t speak at the event. They didn’t need to. Their presence was a reminder that the brave souls who were part of that war are dwindling in number and that the ones who remain are the living link to history.
The family of Dorr Irvin Sprague, who was Brattleboro’s first service member to be killed in action during World War II, provided another piece of history.
At the ceremony, the Purple Heart that was sent to his mother was presented to the Brattleboro Historical Society.
Sprague, an infantryman with the First Marine Division, died on Sept. 19, 1942 on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands.
Brattleboro attorney Tom Costello, a decorated Marine Corps combat veteran who served in the Vietnam War, shifted the focus from the deeds of Carr, Hamilton, Sprague, and the rest of their generation to the present day.
Referring to the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington and the divisiveness that spawned it, Costello, a former Post 5 commander and chaplain, said that liberty is “as challenged today as it has been in any time throughout our history.”
“This is the best of times and it is the worst of times,” he said. “It is the worst of times because there was an assault by a force — many of whom were veterans, many bearing symbols of the Confederate rebellion — on our Capitol with the intent of lynching the vice-president of the United States and injuring the Speaker of the House and the other elected representatives, preventing the free exercise of the constitutional duty of executing and determining the next president of the United States.”
Costello said the attack that left five people dead and hundreds injured was “incited, encouraged, directed, cheered, and congratulated by the president of our country. This was the greatest threat to democracy and the greatest gesture toward tyranny we, as a country, have ever experienced.”
And yet, Costello said, it is also “the greatest time,” with acts of patriotism such as the children of St. Michael’s School who put fresh U.S. flags on the graves of every veteran buried in Brattleboro’s cemeteries.
He also cited acts of hope, noting that Vice President Kamala Harris, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd James Austin III, and honored graduate Sydney Barber spoke at last week’s U.S. Naval Academy graduation, and that Harris, Farber, and Austin are all people of color.
Alluding to President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural address, Costello said “the torch has been passed to leadership that is committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Ralph Kunkel, who was a twice-wounded Navy medical corpsman during the Vietnam War, spoke at the ceremony about someone he never met, Army Capt. Marshall Ray Frizzell, who was killed in Vietnam but incorrectly identified as a Korean War casualty on a kiosk at Living Memorial Park in Brattleboro.
Kunkel said Frizzell was born in Hanover, N.H., and grew up in Vermont, on a farm in Woodstock. Frizzell graduated from the University of Vermont in 1954 and was a student teacher at Brattleboro Union High School.
According to Kunkel, Frizzell planted trees at a still-under-construction Living Memorial Park with his students before he left Brattleboro to join the Army in 1954.
Eventually trained as a helicopter pilot, Frizzell went to Vietnam with the 501st Aviation Battalion, 12th Aviation Group, 1st Aviation Brigade. On Feb. 20, 1966, he was flying a mission in Thua Thien province and was killed when his helicopter collided with another helicopter over a dusty landing zone. He was 34.
“He was not from Brattleboro, but I think he needs to be remembered because he did serve some time in Brattleboro at the high school,” Kunkel said.
As is the annual custom, an honor guard fired a volley of salute and a bugler sounded “Taps,” at each of Brattleboro cemeteries.
Post 5 Commander Dave Findlayson shared with the audience some remarks he made at one of the cemeteries. Saying they were words that “mean something to me,” they were taken from the American Legion’s traditional Memorial Day invocation:
“Comrades, this day is sacred with the almost visible presence of those who have gone before us. We honor the memory of those who gave their lives in service to our country, and of those others who dropped their burdens by the wayside of life and gone to their eternal rest.
“May the ceremonies of today deepen our reverence for our departed friends and comrades. Let us renew our pledge of loyalty to our country and its flag. Let us resolve through word and deed to emphasize the duty and privilege of patriotism.
“Comrades, in this Memorial Day, let us pledge ourselves to patriotic service. Let us make ourselves a friend and brother, a son and father, of those who will not see their own again in mortal flesh.
“Let us grasp the flag and plant it always on the battlements of righteousness.”