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SHIRLEY — “A veteran is someone who, at one point in her or his life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America,” said American Legion Post #183 Commander and Chaplain Charles Church, keynote speaker for the Memorial Day event at Whiteley Memorial Park this past Sunday.

The “singular purpose” of this unique national holiday is “to honor those who wrote that check for the maximum amount,” he said. “Women and men who died while in service to our country.”

“Yesterday, we placed flags on 593 graves here in Shirley to remember our departed military members,” Church continued.

His speech and the rest of the relatively short but solemn ceremony constituted the penultimate item on Shirley’s Memorial Day agenda. It began with a morning ecumenical service at the First Parish Church on the common, followed by wreath-laying ceremonies at the Shirley Center Cemetery, the Civil War statue on the Center green, the Village Cemetery and St. Anthony’s Cemetery.

The program continued with a ceremony at the Maritime Veterans Memorial Bridge over Phoenix Pond and finally, the parade and speeches, culminating at the flagpole at the intersection of Front and Church streets, where the Immaculate Heart of Mary School Band of Still River, Harvard, played the national anthem.

The band, which also marched in the parade and played at various ceremonies during the day, was performing in Shirley for the 23rd consecutive year. Two of its members played taps. The buglers were Andrew Alexander of Townsend, a 12th grade student at the school and ninth-grader Joseph Duffy, of Shirley.

Bells at a nearby church had just finished chiming 2 p.m. as Church read the names of Shirley veterans who had lost their lives serving the nation during past wars and conflicts.

After giving the invocation, Church read a melancholy but patriotic poem by Pearl Rivers that set the tone for his speech. It begins “Tread lightly, ’tis a soldiers grave…” and goes on to describe how one should show proper respect to the “hero in his rest.”

The final stanza is particularly moving. “Tread lightly! for a man bequeathed/Ere laid beneath this sod/His ashes to his native land/His gallant soul to God.”

Remembering Shirley’s war dead

Nineteen soldiers from Shirley died during the Revolutionary War, 21 in the Civil War, six in World War I, 13 in World War II, two in Korea and two in Vietnam.

Decades ago, memorial signs were erected in six squares to honor the town’s World War I dead. Over the years, the signs all disappeared, Church said. But thanks to Legionnaire Norman Albert and other helping hands they have now been replaced.

Albert launched the effort with help from David Esielionis and Aaron Griffin, support from the selectmen and sponsorship from Fidelity Bank. The new signs were crafted by Ken Duval’s Sign Company, of Shirley, and erected with assistance from the DPW.

Merchant Marines remembered

Church also highlighted the Merchant Marine’s contributions to the nation in wartime, with little credit given. “Most of us know about losses in the Army, Navy, Airforce, Marines and Coast Guard,” he said, with the honor due to every one.

Merchant mariners have been forgotten, he said, but they, too, deserve those honors.

The U.S. fleet of civilian-owned merchant vessels that transport cargo and passengers during peacetime are officially attached to the Navy during times of war, per the Merchant Marine Act of 1936. Under the act, the civilian sailors are subject to the Uniform Code of Military Justice; that is, the same rules as other branches of the service. The ships can be called on to deliver troops and supplies for the military, Church said.

The numbers tell the story. During World War I, 197 merchant ships were lost, with 430 more damaged; 629 merchant mariners lost their lives.

In World War II, one out of every 24 mariners were killed, the highest casualty rate of any service branch. A total of 733 American cargo ships were lost, with 881 damaged. Of the 215,000 who served in World War II, 8,651 perished “in troubled waters and off enemy shores.” According to Congressional testimony, another 1,100 mariners later died of combat wounds, 12,000 were wounded and 712 were taken prisoner.

Church quoted sobering statistics for later conflicts as well, up to the Gulf War. Merchant Marine Captain and town resident Tom Oldfield, who has authored three books on the subject, provided the data, he said.

For example, merchant mariners were responsible for 75 percent of personnel and 90 percent of supplies delivered to the war zone during the Korean War. During the Vietnam War, civilian seamen carried 95 percent of supplies to American armed forces, with many ships sailing into combat zones under fire.

Some 300 merchant ships brought supplies to Vietnam, averaging over 3,000 merchant mariners in Vietnamese ports throughout the war and a casualty list with 56 dead or missing in action.

“They brought the troops in and brought home many of those whose names now appear on the Vietnam Memorial wall in Washington, D.C. The names of those brave mariners — killed by mines, rockets, snipers and explosions, “just as our soldiers were” — should be inscribed there, too, Church said.

Grand marshal

United States Army Veteran Ed Zukowski was the parade’s honorary grand marshal. Zukowski, 96, recently received the Legion of Honor award from the French government.

He first enlisted in 1937, served in Hawaii and was discharged in 1939. Two years later, in 1941, Zukowski re-enlisted with his brother Joe.

The two were with troops that landed at Omaha beach on D-Day. Only 18 in their platoon survived. Zukowski was wounded. Joe was killed. Among awards and medals “too numerous to mention,” he has received two Purple Hearts, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and the Combat Infantry Badge.

A Shirley resident for 55 years, Zukowski has been a member of the American Legion for 50 years. He worked for the Ayer post office for 24 years. A skilled cabinetmaker, his handiwork may be seen in the wooden windmills and lighthouses that decorate many yards in town, Church said. “And he’s the only person I know who can make false teeth.”

State Sen. James Eldridge spoke briefly. “I know what a patriotic town this is,” he said, noting that many people from Shirley have enlisted in the service over the years. “We are here to honor those men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to protect our liberties,” and the freedoms cited in the Bill of Rights, including religious freedom and the right of assembly.

While pausing to remember those who died for the country, “we should ask ourselves what more we can do to support service men and women who come home,” Eldridge said. One way is to back organizations such as the VFW and American Legion, he said.

Church wrapped the ceremony with a few final remarks and a poem sent to him by Stan Jurga, “Freedom is Not Free” by Kelly Strong. It channels the impressions of someone watching the flag of the United States of America pass by and the questions raised by a young Marine’s salute.

Questions like how many men like him had fallen through the years…died on foreign soil? How many mothers’ tears, pilots’ planes shot down. How many died at sea? How many foxholes were soldiers’ graves? The refrain that concludes each stanza does not answer those questions but echoes war’s moral conundrum. “No, freedom is not free.”

“Memorial day is not about picnics and parades, although there is nothing wrong with enjoying and celebrating our American way of life. But Memorial Day is really about remembering those who made our way of life possible,” Church concluded.

“Thank you for remembering our fallen heroes,” he said. “May God bless them and you for being here today.”

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