HOULTON, Maine — Walter Davidson didn’t know Marine First Lt. James Zimmerman, and he doesn’t know any members of his family. He isn’t even from Maine. But that didn’t stop the Massachusetts resident, who was in Aroostook County visiting family Tuesday, from pausing to honor the sacrifice made by Zimmerman, who was killed in Afghanistan on Nov.2.
Davidson, 68, was never in the military, but one of his nephews was killed in Vietnam.
“I remember his funeral so vividly,” he said, sitting in his car on North Street in Houlton. “The only ones there, besides the family and some of his friends, was the preacher. He was a small town boy, a great kid that people liked, but no one came out to honor the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice back then.
The atmosphere was just too charged. But things are different now, and I am glad. No one came out like this for my nephew, but I wanted to do that for this soldier. It is great to see that everyone else had the same idea.”
Davidson was one of more than a thousand people who came out to participate in a motorcade from Smyrna to Houlton organized by Smyrna officials to meet the hearse carrying Zimmerman’s body and follow it to a Houlton funeral home. The motorcade traveled through Smyrna, Island Falls and Dyer Brook, about 20 miles, before stopping in Houlton. Vehicles joined the motorcade throughout the route and residents in every town stood on the roadsides as the hearse came through.
Military officials said Zimmerman died while conducting combat operations in Helmand province in Afghanistan. He was based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and assigned to 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force.
Police stopped traffic in both directions as the hearse came off Interstate 95 in Houlton. It was escorted and followed by approximately 25 vehicles from the Maine State Police, the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department, Houlton Police Department, Houlton Water Co., U.S. Border Patrol and Customs and Border Protection, along with firetrucks and ambulances from a number of Aroostook County towns. A line of cars more than 200 strong followed the hearse and the police and emergency vehicles as they traveled to Bowers Funeral Home.
In Houlton, residents — including countless veterans — ignored a stinging rain and whipping winds to stand by the side of the road in raincoats or sit in cars to watch the procession go by. Parking lots were full all along North Street as people waited for the hearse. In response to a request from the Greater Houlton Chamber of Commerce, many Houlton businesses that normally closed at 5 p.m. stayed open later and left their lights on to honor the passing motorcade. In Monument Park, which houses memorials to the town’s war dead, more than 50 people stood in the rain, waving American flags and holding up a large flag to greet the hearse. Many of the people were from Greater Houlton Christian Academy, the school where Zimmerman graduated in 2003.
The Houlton Fire Department pulled its ladder truck onto Military Street, just up the road from Monument Park, and hung a massive American flag from it.
Kim McPherson of Houlton sat in her car on North Street with her two children, Logan and Chase, for more than an hour as they waited for the hearse. McPherson said that she didn’t know Zimmerman or his family, but felt that honoring him in such a way was “the right thing to do.”
“It is amazing to see all of these people paying respects to him tonight,” she said. “Somewhere, I hope that he sees it as well.”
According to his obituary, Zimmerman enlisted in the Marines on March 21, 2003, when he was still in high school at Greater Houlton Christian Academy in Houlton. It was the first day of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He attended boot camp at Parris Island, S.C. He served in the Marine Corps Reserve, 1st Battalion, 25th Marine Regiment, Topsham, for one year and afterward was awarded a Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship. He then attended the University of Maine, graduating in 2008.
Zimmerman grew up in Smyrna, the son of Tom and Jane Zimmerman, who still live in the community.
Outside Greater Houlton Christian Academy on Tuesday evening, a sign listed Zimmerman’s name and the year he graduated. Under it, school officials wrote, “No Greater Love.”
Zimmerman will be remembered during a Veterans Day funeral at Houlton High School on Thursday. Friends may call 9-10:45 a.m. and funeral services will begin at 11 a.m. A time of fellowship will be held after the services at County Road Baptist Church, New Limerick. Interment will be at Arlington National Cemetery.
Gov. John Baldacci has ordered that flags be flown at half staff on the day of the funeral.