PEPPERELL — Memorial Day weekend isn’t only the unofficial beginning of summer at North Middlesex Regional High School.
Friday’s half-day was marked with a heartfelt reminder of what the long weekend really means as keynote speaker Air Force Lt. Col. Merle Green invoked memories of service, childhood and friendship at the high school’s Memorial Day Ceremony. The yearly event is co-organized by members of the school’s student council and Pepperell VFW.
VFW Commander Tony Saboliauskas described Green as “humble about what he does” after having retired from 21 years as an Air Force and Civil Air Patrol Pilot.
“When I decided to settle in this area, I thought I would grow tired and become a civilian,” Green said. “But there is a chance to get involved as a veteran everywhere.”
Green said all of us have a responsibility to keep memories of those who have made sacrifices to keep this country safe alive.
He and Roger Conrad Gaughan grew up in Belchertown, playing around their neighborhood and sharing a birthday in June. Although Gaughan was a devoted Yankees fan, something incomprehensible to Green, they played on the same baseball team.
“The field on which our high school varsity team played had a very high embankment with a stone wall atop,” Green said. “Balls hit onto to the embankment were ground-rule doubles; balls hit over the stone wall were home runs.”
Green said he had never seen anyone hit a home run there until one day Gaughan did just that.
“He hit a majestic, towering fly ball and we all watched as it easily cleared the stone wall,” Green said, pausing in front of the audience. “Sorry,” he said, continuing.
“That ball probably would’ve hit the Green Monster in Fenway, back in the days where we had never heard of aluminum bats.”
Gaughan’s name is now immortalized on panel 19E line 5 of the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington. Shortly after high school, the U.S. was embroiled in the Vietnam War and children his age were making life-changing decisions, Green said.
“He planned to join the Marines; he was always meticulous about his appearance and belongings,” he said. “In 1966 he received orders to go to Vietnam and in May the following year took part in Operation Union.”
Operation Union was a search-and-destroy mission conducted in the Que Son Valley, a strategic area for controlling that region of South Vietnam. Green’s friend was wounded and taken to a rear hospital, which was later evacuated to the USS Sanctuary, 12 miles out on the South China Sea.
He was one of 22 men on a C-86 Sea Knight, Green explained, a large, twin-engine helicopter capable of transporting large numbers of troops. As one helicopter landed and was unloading, Gaughan’s Sea Knight lost both engines and the pilot performed an emergency landing in the sea.
“Getting familiar with incomplete stories of people who cannot tell them is important. We should do our part to participate in and understand our military history,” Green said. “The sea was relatively calm that day, but still, eight- to 10-foot waves tipped the helicopter over. Only half the passengers were saved, and his body was never recovered.”
There are other’s Green said he wants to keep alive through memory. He was inspired to enter the military by his father and father-in-law, both “members of the ‘greatest generation,’ who went and served and acted like nothing happened.”
His father-in-law was a pilot too, a B-17 gunner who was shot down over Italy on his second mission, captured by the Germans and held as a POW.
“He spoke little about flying and never about POW experience,” Green said.
Enlisting in the Navy, Green’s father served on the USS Augusta as a fire-control technician, zeroing in the ship’s large turrets.
“A few years before he died, I took him flying and he confided that he had wanted to be a pilot,” Green said. “But his draft number was such that he could not wait to take the pilot exam.”
“Memorial Day’s significance has waned. It’s become the (unofficial) beginning of the summer seasons,” he said. “My first projects are ahead of me, but my challenge to you is to start one for yourself.”
After the speech, a presentation followed, with a military representative and student from each town accepting a memorial wreath. Dotted throughout the ceremony were performances by the NMRHS Concert Band, playing each of the military branch hymns and a selection entitled “Army Strong” transcribed by students Joseph Clark and Tony Martinez.
NMRHS’s Chorus also performed. Selections included “In Remembrance,” accompanied by a French horn and piano duo, and also “America the Beautiful,” coupled with a slideshow of fallen soldiers including their birth and death dates, ranks and home towns.
Taps closed the ceremony, sending the students out into the hall to mingle with the speakers, including Pepperell’s wreath-bearer, Army Reservist Ken English, and Townsend’s, Navyman Clyde Freeman, before leaving for the weekend. They are probably going off to barbecues and other summer activities, but the meaning of the day had been imbued.
“I look and see the way in which the school has taught its students to honor vets, and no one does it better,” Superintendent Maureen Marshall said during the ceremony.
Co-organizer and assistant principal Kevin Higginbottom spoke about the endurance of the “our most sacred holiday,” citing Oliver Wendell Holmes. He said the sentiments of Memorial Day endure in every layer of the school. Principal Christine Battye agreed.
“Patriots is not just our team name and mascots, its our indictment here,” she said.
Follow Luke Steere at twitter.com/lsnashobapub.