Pittsfield gathers to offer a solemn salute on Veterans Day
PITTSFIELD -- An 87-year-old World War II veteran rose slowly from his chair, steadied himself with his cane, then helped a 92-year-old buddy to his feet.
A shy 6-year-old boy -- clad in the military fatigues he wore in honor of his father who is serving his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan -- snapped pictures.
By Andrew Amelinckx, Berkshire Eagle Staff
It was 2:51 a.m. on Nov. 12, 1918, when the sleepless news staff of The Eagle received the long-awaited news over the wire: The fighting between the Allies and Germany had ended. "The war to end all wars" was over.
While the treaty of Versailles that officially ended the global war wasn't signed until the next year, the fighting had ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
The news spread rapidly through the city on the morning of the 12th through the extra edition of the paper that was in the hands of newsboys a short time after The Eagle had gotten official word of the armistice. As the sun rose that morning, an impromptu parade of a thousand citizens broke out along North Street in Pittsfield. Across the city and county, noisemakers of all kinds -- from the train whistle of a Boston & Albany locomotive to myriad whistles and gongs carried by residents who also shouted with joy -- woke up anyone who may have slept through the announcement.
An official parade was declared by the city's mayor, William C. Moulton, a few hours later, and by 10 a.m. the first Armistice Day celebration in the city saw 6,000 people march from City Hall Park to North Street where it snaked through town, from Wahconah Street, to South Street and back to East Street where it ended in thousands of residents dancing with one another. The parade was so large it took nearly 90 minutes to pass any given point in the crowd of about 25,000 onlookers.
In Lee, the residents also paraded to the din of church bells and hooting train and factory whistles along with the shouts of the crowd. They marched for nearly two hours up and down the streets of Lee singing the popular wartime song, "We'll Hang the Kaiser to a Sour Apple Tree," but modified the song lyrics to the past tense.
That morning in Pittsfield, a group of 76 draftees waited at the induction center to be transported by train to basic training in North Carolina. One of the men, Clarence Decker, later recalled that outside of the center thousands of people thronged the streets in celebration, but that he and the other men dutifully marched to the train station followed by a marching band and a large crowd.
The men boarded the train and headed south. After stopping in Lee to pick up 21 more recruits from South County -- who had been given a similar sendoff as their Pittsfield brethren -- the train was stopped in Danbury, Conn., at about 11 a.m. and the soldiers were officially relieved of duty. According to Decker, they disembarked in that city and joined in the celebration. A few of the men didn't make it back to the train for the return trip to Berkshire County and had to find their own ways back home.
Decker did make the train and was greeted along with his fellow soldiers, dubbed the "Danbury Patriots," by an even more massive crowd than had seen them off, as well as by the same band, which was a little "the worse for wear" by that point, Decker recalled.
The celebrations continued into the night in joy and relief for the end of a war that had claimed the lives of more than 100,000 Americans and left twice that number wounded.
In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson made that Nov. 11 the official day to recognize "with solemn pride the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory." Massachusetts made Armistice Day a legal holiday in 1928, and a decade later, it was declared an official federal holiday.
By the 1940s, as America became embroiled in a second world war, Armistice Day observances, at least locally, were on the wane. A 1944 Eagle article noted that the parade was all of three minutes long, that the streets were empty, and that there was a dearth of residents at the wreath-laying ceremony that followed the parade.
In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower helped breathe new life into the holiday when, in the face of the service of Americans in World War II and the Korean War, the holiday was expanded to honor all U.S. veterans and received a name change.
As late as 1956, The Eagle, in reporting on Veterans Day events, saw fit to remind readers the holiday was in honor of all veterans and not just a day to remember the cessation of fighting in 1918. Throughout that decade, the newspaper reported that thousands of citizens were on hand for the parade and commemorations.
Over the years, Veterans Day has seen its share of ups and downs, from a date change in the late 1960s (it was restored to its original date in 1978), to the ebb and tide of public tastes, but every year the people of Berkshire County continue to come out and honor the men and women who fought for their country.
Young and old, veterans and those who know them gathered at Pittsfield's Veterans Memorial on South Street on Monday for the city's annual Veterans Day ceremonies.
Some came to remember veterans. Others were there to heal.
The annual parade and wreath-laying ceremonies were followed by remarks from keynote speaker and local radio talk show host Bill Sturgeon, who chose to honors his fellow Vietnam War veterans because the conflict had begun 50 years ago.
"I can't tell you how happy I am to see this representation," Sturgeon said, standing next to Mayor Daniel L, Bianchi and in between members of the City Council.
"Some of us who were in Vietnam can remember when we didn't have this kind of political support," he said.
According to Sturgeon, of the 2.7 million Americans who served in Vietnam only 850,000 are still alive. He said 390 Vietnam veterans die every day. Some 1,660 Vietnam vets are still listed as missing in action.
"It is with great sadness that so many brothers and sisters have left us," Sturgeon said. "They didn't receive the recognition that they deserve that we receive."
Sturgeon spoke of the struggles that Vietnam veterans first encountered when they returned home from the war that deeply divided the country.
"Many of us found that our service would not be rewarded when we returned home," he said. "Rather, we were scorned and ridiculed and we were hated. Somehow we the warriors were the focal point of a nation's anger over the war."
Through those struggles, Sturgeon said Vietnam veterans learned that they could count on each other for support, "the way they had depended on each so much before."
He urged the younger veterans in attendance "to carry on and help each other." His voice rising, Sturgeon said the younger veterans should remember the motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America.
"Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another," he said.
Bianchi said he considered Veterans Day to be a "solemn holiday."
"To all of the veterans here today, on behalf of our community, we want to thank you," he said.
U.S. Marine Corps veteran Francis Tremblay, also a Vietnam veteran, was honored as the 2012 Veteran of the Year.
Richard Jordan, 87, a Marine Corps veteran of World War II, said the festivities reminded him of a friend, Richard Boos, who died during the battle of Iwo Jima.
"I think of him quite often," Jordan said. "We were buddies. [This day] brings back memories of the guys that I knew."
Six-year-old Averi Willis of Pittsfield smiled when asked about his father, Shane, who is stationed in Afghanistan.
"He's very proud of him," said Averi's mother, Shana.
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