The sun shone on the five granite pillars of Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial in on Monday afternoon as a crowd of more than 300—many members decked out in red, white and blue clothes with poppies and U.S. flags—paid its respects to those who have given their lives for their country.
Master of Ceremonies Tom Lasser, a U.S. Army veteran who flew helicopters in Vietnam, opened the Memorial Day event with a poem written by Theodore O'Hara—a soldier remembering Kentucky troops killed in the Mexican War of 1847—before setting an upbeat note for the proceedings, extolling the “glorious, beautiful day in Redondo Beach.”
“This is a beautiful park, and we have a great ambassador of the city of Redondo Beach; I’d like to introduce our beautiful Mayor Mike Gin,” Lasser said.
The mayor, who sat in front of the podium with other dignitaries, was already laughing. “Thank you so much, Tom,” he said as he took the mike. “I don’t know if I’ve ever been introduced as being beautiful.”
Gin, who has spoken on Memorial Day “for a number of years now,” paid tribute to all those who had contributed to the effort, including the Task Force members, city staff, the volunteers and “a big shout out to the .”
But the day “is about those that are not here,” the mayor said. “It’s their special day.”
Quoting from a letter from a Pennsylvania high school senior who had received a commission from the U.S. Air Force, Gin said, “I thought his words were pretty poignant, and I wanted to share some of them."
The student wrote about how Memorial Day traditionally marks the start of summer. “We can get together for a picnic or barbecue; it’s a day when used-car dealers are expected to mark down their prices, a day when, weather permitting, small communities and citizens hold a parade. However, not all Americans are celebrating with such spirit, dignity and enthusiasm,” the student wrote.
“Some families may not be holding that annual barbecue in the back yard; some children may not be holding their father’s hand as the band marches past; and some others may still be staring at the flag that flies at half staff. It’s these people that I speak to today.”
The letter went on to say how important it was to “reflect on the true meaning of Memorial Day and the sacrifices that our military personnel make for each and every one of us.”
After Gin finished, Tom Lasser presented the mayor with a framed picture of Gin's father’s Memorial Brick, which is part of the memorial.
Lasser raised the levity meter again, saying what “a great place” Redondo Beach was to live … a place where we can still use plastic bags … (a place) where if a sea gull poops on you it’s a sign of good fortune.” He also pointed to a formation of pelicans flying over the park as “Mother Nature’s fly-by for our Memorial Day ceremony.”
As he asked the crowd to recognize members of the Redondo Beach Veterans Memorial Task Force, attendees gave them an ovation.
Lasser then reminded everyone of the Task Force’s fundraising efforts, especially the Memorial Bricks. “We have sold 700 bricks at $100 a pop. We’re still selling them; we still have some fundraising to do.” (Bricks can be purchased on the RBVMTF’s website.)
Nothing was more moving than watching WWII veteran, , 89—who fought in the Battle of the Bulge in 1944 with the 101st Airborne Division—receive the retired U.S. Flag while the Los Angeles Police Emerald Pipes and Drums played in the background.
Jedziniak, a medic with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment, later placed a Memorial Brick dedicated to the legendary 101st Division at the Memorial.
He was assisted by Herb Masi, chairman of the RB Veterans Memorial Task Force and a Vietnam Special Forces captain. Masi, who was wounded in a mortar attack in Vietnam, was recently named “Veteran of the Year” by Assemblywoman Betsy Butler, who represents the 53rd District.
To acknowledge Jedziniak's service, Lasser read a letter from another veteran of that war, Robert Kennedy. “We were cut off and surrounded for 10 days and pounded unmercifully and never yielded an inch. What men we have left can never be praised too highly.
“Day after day with no food, no water, no sleep … every step you take you fall on your face and fall into a foot of snow. (You are) so hungry (you) eat anything … so cold you staggered around in circles to keep from freezing to death.”
That, Lasser said, “reflects what Jed experienced and why we are honoring the 101st today.”
Marine Corps veteran Lawrence D. Gonzales, Undersecretary of Operations for the California Department of Veterans Affairs, was one of the event's speakers.
“I knew exactly where I was going (today), because my grandparents used to bring me down to the pier when it got too hot in Pasadena in the summertime," Gonzales told Lasser. "And it’s just as cool now as it was then, except it’s cooler because you’ve got a great, great memorial here.”
On a personal note, Gonzales asked that those present “remember not only those who did not return, but those families that will never have a whole, complete family again … Those who did not return would want us to do that.”
Gonzales also presented Gin with a proclamation from Gov. Jerry Brown that designated May 28, 2012 as Memorial Day.
Lasser gave the Redondo Union High School Marine Corp Junior ROTC a special nod for “sponsorship of a final pyramid,” one .
Cadets, under the leadership of Senior Marine Instructor Chief Warrant Officer Keith Willoughby, had already played a large part in the proceedings, retiring the U.S. Flag and raising the new one.
The JROTC recently raised $7,000 to by holding battalion picnics, selling discount cards for local businesses and conducting dine-in fundraisers at area eateries.
Willoughby, who introduced all the cadets present, said his battalion had “kind of adopted this memorial as a community service project for our unit. … They come down here each month and clean the monument; they did that before we purchased the pyramid.”
The cadets also placed poppy wreathes on each of the five pyramids that represent the five branches of the U.S. Military—Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
The poppy tradition harks back to World War I, Lasser said, when red poppies grew over the graves of fallen soldiers in the Flanders region of Belgium. In Flanders Fields, a poem written by a Canadian physician, is one of the most popular war poems of all time.
Accompanied by the Redondo Union Wind Esemble, JROTC Cadet Capt. Christopher Barela sang the national anthem. Paul Verner, USMC Vietnam veteran, played "Taps" with Cadet 2nd Lt. Matthew Cortez.
Chaplain Judi Larance of the Elks Lodge #1378 gave the invocation.
Concluding, Tom Lasser said, “The true soldier fights not because he hates what’s in front of him, he fights for those he loves who are behind him. Soldiers wear medals; heroes wear the respect of a nation.”
The service was followed by a barbecue picnic hosted next door by the Elks Lodge No. 1378. The barbecue was free for all veterans and members of the military.