BRATTLEBORO — On a sunny late May morning on the Common, three men sat on a bench in the shade of a maple tree.
These three local residents shared a common bond of being among the last living witnesses to the greatest conflict the world had ever known.
This trio of World War II veterans didn't have to speak, or stand, in front of the crowd gathered there for the annual Memorial Day service on May 29. Just their presence spoke volumes.
George Stone Sr. was a young man in Maine fresh out of high school when he enlisted in the Army in 1941, not long before the U.S. declared war on Germany and Japan in December 1941.
He ended up as a combat engineer, landing on the beaches of Normandy in June 1944. He said he drove a Caterpillar D7 armored bulldozer across Europe, clearing obstacles for advancing troops.
He is celebrating his 99th birthday on May 31 in Brattleboro. He had a long career as a heavy equipment operator for Lane Construction, driving his D7 to build instead of destroy.
His daughter, Valerie Gragen, said her father got a Croix de Guerre from General Charles de Gaulle for his service in France. She said he was waiting to be shipped to Japan to participate in the planned U.S. invasion of the island when the war ended in August 1945.
Walter Schwarz of Brattleboro said he'll be 97 in a couple of months. He joined the Army Air Forces in 1945 and was in flight training in Mississippi when the war ended.
While he was not under fire in World War II, five years later, he was piloting a B-29 bomber during the Korean War.
He said his service in Korea was uneventful, save for one mission “that was pretty scary, and I thought I wasn't going to make it.”
“I've really been pretty lucky,” he said.
Richard Hamilton turned 100 last September, and his story is familiar to Windham County. He served in the 91st Bomb Group of the Eighth Air Force as a radio operator.
On his ninth mission, on July 20, 1944, his B-17 bomber was badly shot up by German fighter planes. With most of the crew killed and the bomber aflame, Hamilton and another crewman bailed out 18,000 feet above Germany.
Hamilton was captured and held in German prison camps for the remainder of the war until he and fellow prisoners were liberated by Russian soldiers on April 24, 1945.
After returning to Marlboro, he went on to open and run the Skyline Restaurant on Hogback Mountain with his wife, Joyce, for 48 years until he retired in 1994.
He uses a walker to get around now, but Hamilton makes an effort to attend as many veterans' events as possible.
The experiences of these men are just a sampling of the many sacrifices that were made by those who served in World War II - experiences that most of today's Americans know only from books and movies.
Remembering, honoring sacrifice
That history was echoed by the featured speaker at the May 29 service, Bartley J. “B.J.” Costello III.
A Rutland native and brother of local attorney Tom Costello, he served in the Navy as the executive officer of the USS Genesee, a fuel supply ship, during the Vietnam War. He went on to have a long legal career in Albany, New York.
His passion project was the preservation of the USS Slater, a destroyer escort now moored on the Hudson River in Albany as a museum. It is the last surviving ship of the 563 destroyer escorts built during World War II to defend naval task forces from submarine attacks.
Costello was part of the team that raised more than $2 million to obtain the ship as the centerpiece of the Destroyer Escort Historical Museum.
The Slater was launched in 1944 and served on convoy duty in the North Atlantic. When the war in Europe ended, it sailed to the Pacific to support fleet operations as the war with Japan came to a close.
Costello talked about the sacrifices made by the soldiers, sailors, and airmen serving their country, from the War of Independence to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he remembered what it was like as a Naval officer under fire during the Vietnam War.
“From my experience, our sailors traveled into harm's way without regard for their own safety,” Costello said. “Those who died, died for a cause each considered more important than their own life. They didn't volunteer to die; they volunteered to defend values ingrained in their upbringing.”
Costello said that we, the living, can honor them through our everyday actions “as we strive to keep faith with them, with the strength, courage and wisdom to contribute to the freedom we so enjoy, so dearly won. So let us leave here today, recommitted to our values and living well for others.”
The annual Memorial Day service on the Common was presented by American Legion Post 5, VFW Post 1034, and Marine Corps League Detachment 798.