The annual Veterans Day salute at Port St. Joe Jr./Sr. High School, a Gulf County tradition, was a bit different this year.
There remained the moving remembrance of the dead, a bell rung with each name of a Gulf County casualty. There was the presentation by the NJORTC drill team and songs honoring America and its freedoms from the high school guitar band.
But the annual event provided even more last Friday, as the Port St. Joe Elementary School children packed the upper reaches of the R. Marion Craig Coliseum and first- and sixth-graders added to the honorary music with “You’re a Grand Old Flag” and “America the Beautiful.”
In addition, this year’s event provided a stage to pay special homage to the veterans of World War II, the “Greatest Generation” that fought a war on multiple fronts and saved a world from the continued rise of fascism.
As keynote speaker Kesley Colbert noted, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the response from young men and women across the country was profound.
“They didn’t wait for the call, they rushed (to recruiting offices) because the flag was attacked, our country was attacked,” Colbert said. “Two hundred million enlisted in that war. What a remarkable show of courage and strength.
“They had been lawyers, bankers, accountants and they got their training when the bullets started flying,”
He told students about Guadalcanal in the Pacific and how six months of fighting ultimately boiled down to hand-to-hand combat for possession of the island.
“We don’t call them the Greatest Generation for nothing,” Colbert told the crowd of students, veterans and the public who attended the event before speaking about D-Day and the June 1944 invasion of Europe that would lead to the end of the war with Germany.
“Nothing like it had been seen before or since,” Colbert said of the Normandy invasion. “It was unbelievable. Two thousand died before noon but by the end of the day the American flag was up over France. Within a year we would be in Berlin.”
For Colbert, the war in the Pacific carried more personal import. His father fought on the Island of Biak. His father’s company had been lured to the interior of the island by the Japanese, who chose not to offer defense on shore.
His father and his fellow soldiers were surrounded by the Japanese and they fought for 16 days, day and night, until relief arrived. Among those fighting to reach Colbert’s father’s unit, Howard Rogers, was among the veterans gathered last week.
Colbert said his father talked to him about arriving in San Francisco harbor after the atomic bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and the Japanese surrender.
Colbert said his father told him of the American flag that had been draped across the Golden Gate Bridge to welcome the troops.
Colbert said those men, hardened by war and death, wept “like babies” when they saw that flag greeting them. They knew they were home.
“Young people you are here today because they were there fighting for you,” Colbert said. “That’s why we have our freedoms today. Please don’t take it for granted.”