George Saunders was born on the Fourth of July.
He’ll turn 79 this year. He intends to celebrate the same way he does every year, with fireworks commemorating his freedom.
Mr. Saunders, a Toledo resident, served as a seaman deck hand in the U.S. Navy from 1952 until he was honorably discharged in 1960.
He was at Toledo’s Memorial Day parade Saturday, sitting on the edge of a concrete planter near the intersection of Erie and Jackson streets, an American flag in his hand.
“This is beautiful,” he said of the parade. “It’s really something to see. For them to do this for the veterans, it’s beautiful.”
He was one of more than 5,000 people who showed up to pay tribute to military personnel, past and present. Police estimated the crowd was the largest at the parade in at least five years.
His best friend, Alonzo Brown, whom he grew up with in Wheeling, W.Va., was killed in Korea during his first week of battle. Mr. Brown was only 16.
“I’ll never forget him,” he said.
Mr. Saunders was stationed on the USS Perry. He said he was the first one to load a shell into the hopper. His ship once spent 28 days at sea without sight of land. Didn’t bother him, though.
Across the street on Jackson was Ray Simoni, a Vietnam veteran who spent eight years in the U.S. Air Force.
Mr. Simoni joined in 1960. His father served during World War II.
Mr. Simoni, 68, sat in an American flag folding chair, a walker in front of him, with two flags in the attached basket. Every time someone carrying an American flag passed, he stood to salute.
“We were on worldwide alert,” he said of his service. “In a moment you could be deployed.”
Mr. Simoni hasn’t missed a Memorial Day parade since he returned from Vietnam. But last year he wasn’t sure he’d be able to make it.
“I wasn’t supposed to be here today,” he said quietly. “I never thought I’d need this stuff,” he added, smacking the sides of his walker.
Mr. Simoni won’t know how advanced the cancer is until July when he goes in for another MRI.
But at least for a few hours Saturday, that wasn’t what was important.
Another Vietnam veteran, Gene Czerniawski, 61, was at the parade with his son Geno.
Mr. Czerniawski, of Toledo, wore the same Army-issued jacket he was given during his five-month stint in the service.
On his 19th birthday, Mr. Czerniawski didn’t get a birthday cake, he got a pair of Army boots. In Vietnam, he was handed a rifle.
His brother was in the 101st Airborne Division and they had friends joining the military, which convinced him he should join too.
“They were our heroes,” he said as his eyes filled with tears, “even the guys who came home in body bags. It was your destiny to go.”
Contact Taylor Dungjen at: email@example.com or 419-724-6054.
American Revolution: http://www.americanrevolutioncenter.org/
Civil War: http://www.nationalcwmemorial.org/
WW I: http://www.wwimemorial.org/
WW II: http://www.wwiimemorial.com/
Korean War: http://www.nps.gov/kwvm/
Vietnam War: http://www.thewall-usa.com/
Afghanistan & Iraq: http://www.freedommemorials.org/