- November 9, 2016
Compared to the rest of the state Longboat Key has a relatively high percentage of veterans at 14.7% of the population. It only makes sense that several events on and around the Key were organized to celebrate those who have served in all of America’s military branches.
From Plymouth Harbor to Longboat Island Chapel, the voices of veterans and the thank-yous of the community were heard loud and clear.
More than 40 of Plymouth Harbor's 80 veteran residents were honored in a pinning ceremony on Nov. 11, Veterans Day.
Veterans, their families and guests gathered at Plymouth Harbor for the ceremony, which was in partnership with Tidewell Hospice. Over the years, Tidewell has pinned more than 7,000 clients in ceremonies such as these. Each branch of the military was represented, with 17 Army veterans, 11 Air Force veterans, nine Navy veterans, four Marine Corps veterans and two Coast Guard veterans, and each attendee received the Hospice Veterans Partnership Pin.
"There's a lot of representation sitting in this room, and it is an honor and privilege to be here with you today," Tidewell volunteer and Air Force veteran Terry Purcell said.
Plymouth Harbor residents have served in every conflict from World War II to the Korean War to Operation Desert Storm. Sallie Van Arsdale was in the September 1944 class of the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, better known as the WAVES. She never saw conflict during World War II, but held the title of ensign, was in the WAVES for a little under two years and received a pin on Nov. 11.
“I think it’s always nice to be rewarded, congratulated, thanked for the time you spent,” Van Arsdale said.
Four volunteers went into the audience to pin veterans who could not walk to the stage, and each veteran was thanked and saluted after the pin was secured to their lapel.
"It's nice to see and recognize other people like myself that I've known before and after I came here," Air Force veteran Allen Jennings said.
Though the number of veterans who can deliver first-hand accounts of World War II is diminishing, Longboat Key resident and World War II veteran Chuck Palmeri made sure his story will stick around. The 95-year-old published a book, “Boy Solder: Recollections of World War II” in 2019. On Veterans Day, he gave a presentation with his editor, Liz Coursen.
Coursen began the presentation with the history of Dachau, a village northwest of Munich. It was known for its school of art before Heinrich Himmler became police chief in Munich and began imprisoning his and Hitler’s political enemies in a Waffen SS compound in Dachau. It quickly overfilled and became the concentration camp.
“As the war was winding down, the Allied armies were all racing towards Munich because it was feared that if the remnants of the German army was able to get through Munich, they would break into the hills where they would live to fight another day,” Coursen said. “Elements of the 45th, which was north, the 42nd, which was to the middle and elements of the Third Army, were all converging towards Munich, and they are all headed right towards Dachau.”
The 45th engaged the Waffen SS soldiers while the 42nd went to the gates of Dachau. They found 32,000 prisoners and scores of people who had already died.
“We're in Munich and the master sergeant in our group came to me and said, ‘I want you to watch things going on around here because I'm leaving. I'm going to see something … there's something like a concentration camp,’” Palmeri said. “He came back later that day and ... I thought he was exaggerating … I went three days later and as we approached in the open air Jeep, you can smell a terrible terrible odor. You can’t describe it. Dead men.”
Palmeri walked through the camp with his fellow soldiers tasked with liberating those who were still alive. Even after they saw it, Palmeri said the refrain amongst the 42nd was, “I can’t believe it.”
For years, Palmeri didn’t discuss much of his time at war. However, as he got older, he realized he wanted his children to have what he never did — a history of the family. He started writing notes, then more notes, then it piled up and he really began writing the book.
“Once I got into writing I was enjoying what I was doing, and I felt it was important,” Palmeri said. “I forgot so much that as I read back through my notes, more stuff came on, more things came up.”
Veterans Day ended on Longboat Key with a concert at Longboat Island Chapel. Vocal duo Siren Song performed a slate of operatic and patriotic songs to an audience of about 70 people. Church members attended with their families, but there were several veterans in the audience as well. Chapel member Bill Evanko came dressed in his Navy whites that he wore from 1971 to 1977.
Robyn Rocklein and Johanna Davis, backed on the piano by Donna Smith, wowed the crowd with a bevy of opera songs, including "Le Nozze di Figaro," which was featured in "Shawshank Redemption." Rocklein noted how opera has often been used as a symbol of freedom in movies, and how one character in "Shawshank Redemption" said he had no idea what they were singing about in Italian, but he felt free.
Of course, the evening wouldn’t have been complete without a tribute to the armed forces, so the iconic medley of U.S. military songs paired with Siren Song’s rendition of “America the Beautiful.”