CASTINE, Maine — In a stiff breeze, against a clear blue sky, the American flag atop the flagpole at Maine Maritime Academy snapped crisply as students, faculty and community members gathered Thursday to honor the nation’s veterans.
The regiment of midshipmen, in their dress uniforms, stood in formation on the college’s campus quadrangle for the ceremony, and a small contingent from the local Merchant Marines Veterans Association attended the ceremony.
The keynote speaker — Cmdr. Henry “Hank” Stewart, U.S. Navy, a 1992 MMA graduate, executive officer of the NROTC unit at MMA and an associate professor of naval science at the college — reminded those attending that while this was a solemn day, it also was a time to celebrate the men and women who have served their country.
“Today, there are more than 23 million living veterans who have defended the United States at home and abroad,” he said. “This one day is a sign of the enormous debt we owe to those veterans.
“This is a solemn day, a day for reflection, for memories, for prayers for those we have lost and for those who continue to serve in harm’s way today,” he said.
But, he said, it also is a day to celebrate those who “rose to the challenge” to defend the country and the ideals upon which it was founded.
“Today, we celebrate the American veteran and those who have served before us,” he said. “On Memorial Day, we honor those who have fallen. But today, we honor not only those who have fallen but all who have served.”
Maine Maritime Academy trains future merchant mariners. Jenna King of Old Town, president of the MMA Student Government Association, noted that 6,895 merchant mariners, including 60 from Maine, had died at sea during World War II. She said this 91st celebration of Veterans Day was an occasion to honor those who have served and “who have inspired us to live up to the standards veterans have set before us.”
Larry Bartlett, president of the local chapter of the Merchant Marine Veterans Association, placed a wreath on the granite monument honoring the merchant mariners who were lost. Cmdr. Steward also placed a wreath on the monument.
Bartlett, who was 16 years old when he joined the Merchant Marines, served on Liberty ships, Victory ships and tankers, traveling to 52 countries from North Africa, Europe and then the Pacific during World War II. The ships were not military vessels but were carrying supplies, ammunition, tanks and food for the troops and often came under enemy fire.
The ships carried some arms themselves and often were forced to defend themselves, he said. Some didn’t make it back.
“We’d shoot at the Japanese planes that were trying to shoot us,” Bartlett said. “It’s sad when you sail with someone and get to know them, and then you watch them end up at the bottom of the ocean. It’s not pretty. But that’s why we’re here: to honor their memories. I wish they were here with us today.”
The ceremony included the college’s a cappella group, the Maritones, who sang the national anthem. There also was a moment of silence, followed by a three-volley salute.