BANGOR, Maine — Forty years ago, World War II veteran and Bangor native Paul Colburn had an idea to place a lone wreath at the base of a monument in Davenport Park.
The monument memorializes the USS Maine, a naval ship that exploded and sank in Havana Harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, killing 267 Americans and sparking the Spanish-American War. Remnants of the ship are incorporated into monuments throughout the country; its bow plate is right here in Bangor.
Colburn has been organizing Bangor’s “Remember the Maine” ceremonies since that first solemn wreath-laying in 1970. This year was his 40th event — and his last. The 85-year-old said his health has deteriorated to the point where he decided to turn over the planning to someone else.
“I enjoy doing it,” he said early Monday afternoon after a brief event commemorating the 112th anniversary of the ship’s sinking. “I think it’s important to remember.”
The event has changed during Colburn’s 40 years. The monument at the corner of Cedar and Main streets has been restored and refurbished, thanks in large part to the efforts of Colburn, other VFW members and the Battleship Maine Centennial Committee, which organized several events during the 1998 anniversary.
Now, instead of a handful of old veterans, the event draws dozens of past and present service members, community leaders and, this year, the Bangor High School band.
Gerry Palmer, who read a proclamation on behalf of the City Council, said the sinking of the USS Maine is “slipping into history, but cannot be forgotten.” Palmer made the parallel between events and people like Colburn, who won’t be around forever but, like the USS Maine, deserve to be remembered long after they are gone.
The USS Maine, a new and premiere battleship of its time, was patrolling in supposedly peaceful waters of the Caribbean Sea during the Cuban revolt against Spain. The ship exploded and sank, prompting U.S. officials to blame the Spanish. War was declared about two months after the ship sank.
Although an investigation into the ship’s sinking didn’t reveal how it happened — some experts believe it was simply spontaneous combustion of coal — the event nevertheless rallied U.S. forces at the time with the battle cry, “Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain.”
Dustin Smiley, commanding officer of the Navy Operational Support Center in Bangor, said it is important to remember that the USS Maine sank during peacetime. It was a solemn reminder that the country’s service men and women are perpetually at risk, whether they are in a war zone or not.
Colburn said he would still attend the “Remember the Maine” events, even if he’s not involved in the planning.
“I’ll come as long as I’m able,” he said.