SHIRLEY — The town was well represented at the Veterans Day ceremony at Whiteley Park. The guest speaker was one of its own.
Norman Albert is a World War II veteran and a member and past commander of American Legion Post 183, which organizes and sponsors Veterans Day and other patriotic events in town each year. He is also one of the “Shirleyites” spotlighted in his address.
Albert said that of the 330 town residents who enlisted from Shirley during World War II, 15 still live in town, including himself. These are “Shirleyites.” Some were born here.
But while his speech highlighted those hometown bonds, its message was universal.
Post Commander Bud DeCell set the tone in his opening remarks. “Today is to honor American veterans, past and present” who served in all the nation’s wars and conflicts.
Post Chaplain Charles Church continued the theme in his opening prayer. “We respect them, we thank them, we honor them,” he said. The prayer asked God’s blessing for “worthy men and women who gave their best when called upon to serve.”
DeCell then introduced Albert, noting his service to the town as well as the nation.
He spent six years as Chairman of the Finance Committee and 12 years as a selectman and also served on several other groups and committees.
The ceremony started at 11 a.m, on Thursday, Nov. 11, the same month, day and time that the armistice was signed in 1918, ending World War I.
When the armistice was proclaimed that day in London, routine ceased, according to an account in H.G. Wells’ “Outline of History.” Clerks left offices and shops. Crowds filled the streets where lamps long darkened were lit again. Flags protruded from doorways. People were more astonished than jubilant; they had lost too much, suffered too much to rejoice. But the sense of relief was palpable. No more air raids. No more killing. Rowdy youths rolled a captured German gun into Trafalgar Square and set it afire.
Later, a national holiday called Armistice Day was established. Today, Americans celebrate Veterans Day to honor all veterans on the anniversary of the World War I armistice.
“We honor today, veterans who served in Afghanistan, Iraq, Korea, Vietnam and World War II, Albert began. “Each one served their country with dignity and honor and we owe our gratitude and thanks for their service,” he said.
Their service “solidified” freedoms such as “the freedom to assemble here today,” he said. Also, the freedom of children to go to school, religious freedom and free elections in which people can vote without fear.
He also noted veterans who continue to serve, including American Legion members who participate in events honoring fallen comrades on Memorial Day and all veterans on Veterans Day. “They continue to pay respect to veterans who have died,” he said.
Veterans recently lost
On Sept. 20, Bernard Sweeney died. An Army veteran with “35 years of honorable service,” he is remembered “for his dedication to Shirley veterans,” Albert said.
Sweeney was the town’s veterans agent for many years.
Albert also remembered other town veterans recently lost: Zigmund “Ziggy” Wesolowski, John Hebert and Benny Kacmarcik, all born in Shirley.
Wesolowski was a Navy lieutenant and participated in the invasion of the Philippines. Hebert, an Army veteran, participated in the invasion of Germany. He was awarded the Silver Star for outstanding service.
Kacmarcik served in the Air Corps. As a tailgunner on a B-57, he flew missions over France and Germany. His three brothers also enlisted. Two of them didn’t come home. Joe joined the Army. Chester, a pilot, was killed in the line of duty. Eddy, in the Navy, was also killed in the line of duty.
Before launching his speech, Albert called on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan wars to stand and veterans of Vietnam and Korean wars and World War II to stand or raise their hands. The latter group was the largest. And the oldest.
As noted in the speech, ranks of World War II veterans are rapidly dwindling, from 11 million to 4.5 million, nationwide. A thousand die each day. “Soon the torch will be passed to the younger veterans as veterans of World War I passed that torch to us,” he said.
Among that younger generation was an Iraq veteran in uniform. Lt Colonel Raymond Prisk, a town resident for 13 years, now serves in the Army reserves at Devens. He was in the regular Army from 1980 to 1993, he said. He served in the Persian Gulf War and Iraq.
Albert continued. “Today, I would like to focus on the Shirleyites who served in World War II,” he said. Of a population of 2,600 at the time, about 330 enlisted in World War II, one of the highest enlistment rates in the country.
Albert spoke of growing up in the Great Depression of the 1930s. “Our parents worked very hard to care for us,” he said. Some lived in “duplex housing” owned by Sampson Cordage Works. A major employer then, the former factory is now a modern office complex called Phoenix Park.
“We never locked our doors,” Albert recalled. There was no need. But if they did lock up, they used a skeleton key, and “every family on the street had a duplicate.”
Shirleyites wore “hand-me-down” clothes and used cut-out pieces of cardboard to plug holes in the soles of their shoes, he said. They went to public school at Lura A. White or attended its catholic alternative, Saint Anthony’s. Most went on to Ayer High School. Some left early to join the armed forces and completed their education after discharge.
One by one, Shirleyites stood or raised their hands as Albert called their names.
Almost all were there. They created an impressive tableau, standing together, saluting as the national anthem played.
Every military service was represented on Albert’s list of “Shirleyites.” Some were stationed stateside. Others went overseas, fought in now-famous battles, served on ships and flew in combat missions. After quoting the mottos of each service branch — Army, Navy, Air Corps, Marines and Coast Guard — Albert made a pledge for all war veterans: “I state, we will defend not self, but country. Peace is our profession. We will always be faithful. We will always be ready.”