TRENTON, Maine — The sound of dozens of sirens reached the local American Legion just after 10 a.m. Sunday. That was the cue for 11 veterans to line up outside the post to salute the procession of at least 12 tractor-trailers carrying about 100,000 wreaths.
The stop in Trenton was the first of many that the convoy, organized by the Harrington-based group Wreaths Across America, will make before laying the wreaths on the gravestones of veterans in Arlington National Cemetery on Dec. 14. This is the 22nd year of the journey.
What began simply with 5,000 leftover wreaths now includes about 400,000 that are shipped to Arlington and veterans’ graves in cemeteries across the U.S. and overseas.
The tradition was started by Worcester Wreath Co., which provided the wreaths until 2007, when Wreaths Across America was formed. The group’s mission is to remember veterans, honor them, and teach younger generations about their service.
Bob Sousa, a Vietnam veteran from Portland, will be driving one of the tractor-trailers to Arlington for the third year in a row.
“I was drafted in the ’60s. In that time period, we had no respect from anybody,” he said. “Without programs like this, we wouldn’t have rebuilt that respect that we lost.”
Throughout the trip, he said, people gather along the road to salute the wreaths as they pass.
Michael Cummings, who served from 1980 to 1984, is usually one of those onlookers. For the last several years, he has stood at the end of his driveway in Hancock to salute the wreaths. This year, he was part of the short ceremony in Trenton in which representatives from Wreaths Across America presented wreaths with bright red bows to his post, as well as to veterans from Post 25 in Bar Harbor and the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 109 in Ellsworth.
“You can’t explain the feelings that some of us vets get,” Cummings said. “It’s for the reason of where they’re headed. The recognition of those that came before us.”
His 6-year-old grandson Logan Hendershott stood with him and the other veterans saluting the convoy that filled American Legion Post 207’s parking lot.
This year, the wreath-bearing procession is escorted by six motorcyclists from the Patriot Guard Riders and a succession of local police and fire departments. For the second year, media communications students from the Hancock County Technical Center will accompany the convoy to Arlington, using video to document the trip.
That was what brought Sen. Brian Langley, R-Ellsworth, to Trenton. He said he once taught at the Hancock County Technical Center and appreciated the educational component of the journey.
“In New England, the wreath is a traditional symbol. It’s our symbol of the holiday spirit and families,” he said.
Wreaths Across America solicits donations throughout the year to fund the trip. This year, the Washington Post reported that the organization did not reach its goal of bringing 135,000 wreaths to Arlington because donors who have traditionally funded the journey are using their resources to get more wreaths placed in other cemeteries across the country.
After Trenton, the wreaths were scheduled to make stops in Belfast, Rockland and Freeport on Sunday. Gov. Paul LePage’s wife, Ann LePage, was expected to join the caravan in Belfast.
Memorial events will be held for victims of Pearl Harbor, Bunker Hill, Charleston Naval Shipyard, and Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.