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New Orleans Honors World War II
Veterans As D-Day Museum
Opens Pacific Wing


By John Pope and Keith O'Brien

In a city accustomed to spectacles, Friday was a banner day. Fighter aircraft whooshed over Poydras Street and military bands played in crisp march time, sending echoes bouncing off high-rises in the Central Business District. Aging veterans of World War II in the Pacific, the guests of honor, puttered along in Jeeps, flatbed trucks and vintage autos, waving Old Glory as red, white and blue confetti rained down upon them.

Whenever the procession stopped for a few moments, spectators streamed toward the obviously pleased veterans to shake their hands, give a thumbs-up or simply say, "Thank you."

Near the federal courthouse on Poydras Street, Lloyd Gavion of New Orleans, wearing his uniform with his sergeant's stripes, burst into "God Bless America" while he stood on the truck bed. Stunned parade-goers joined in.

Gavion, who once worked around the clock to build an airstrip on Bataan, said he sang because he knew of no other way to express his feelings at that moment.

"I love America," he said as he gripped a U.S. flag. "This is for my family -- my children, my 14 grandchildren."

Then Gavion spread his arms wide, as if to take in everyone he could see, and said, "This is my family."

On Friday, New Orleans again threw open its arms to welcome veterans of World War II, especially those who fought in the Pacific, as part of festivities surrounding the opening of the new Pacific wing of the National D-Day Museum.

The Pacific Victory Parade launched three days of events, including a "Gathering of Eagles" World War II fair and "Conversations with Veterans," in which veterans recount their experiences, at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. Today will feature battle reenactments on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. On Sunday, there will be a memorial service at St. Louis Cathedral.

New Relevance

Along the parade route, as Jane Rigdon watched Gavion's demonstration of pride and patriotism, her eyes welled -- not because she had lost relatives during the attack on Pearl Harbor, which happened 60 years ago Friday, but because she and her husband had been in a hotel across the street from the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 and had to run for their lives after jets slammed into the Twin Towers."

Because of that, this (event) means a little more than it would have before," Rigdon said. "The biggest thing to me are the parallels between that attack and Pearl Harbor. I don't think we ever ought to forget."

Comparisons between the two attacks was a major theme of the day, not only among the spectators, but also among the speakers at the museum's dedication ceremony -- a group that included former President George Bush; Joseph J. Foss, a Stetson-wearing Medal of Honor recipient and former governor of South Dakota; New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial; and Tom Hanks, the Oscar-winning actor who has been a major museum backer and ally of World War II veterans.

Bush, a Pacific theater veteran of the war, invoked "duty, honor, country" as guiding principles during that conflict."

We live in a different era," he said, "but I think "duty, honor, country' still prevail."

In addition to the battle cry "Remember Pearl Harbor," "I think we all say, "Remember Sept. 11,' " Bush said.

The people who waged that war possessed "the fortitude that has proved indomitable throughout our long history," Hanks said. "Today, with our world engaged in a new conflict against a different kind of enemy, Americans again are showing this resolve toward preserving freedom."

Sitting at the front of the VIP assembly were 12 Medal of Honor recipients, each of whom received strong, sustained applause when the account of his bravery was read aloud."

We stand in the company of heroes -- people who know that freedom is not free but has a terrific price," Texas Gov. Rick Perry said.

Making Connections

Throughout the hourlong ceremony in front of the museum's glass facade, the morning was foggy and muggy. But as the parade began, as the museum's recording of "Boogie-Woogie Bugle Boy" gave way to a live performance of the Marine Hymn, the sun peeked out, and the day became warm."

This is one of the proudest moments of my life," said Rema Chiasson of Larose. As she waited for her husband, Roland, to walk by, she wore nine of his medals, including a Purple Heart and a Silver Star, on a red, white and blue ribbon around her neck. "It makes you want to stand up and cheer," she said.

The feeling was contagious. Children marched in place to the music and jumped up and down in delight when a Stewart tank rumbled past. Some spectators brandished posters bearing such inscriptions as "Thank you" and "Thank you for our freedom." Others held up posters of their military outfits, hoping to find comrades from decades ago.

Near Lee Circle, retired Lt. Col. Mary Kennedy of New Orleans, an Army nurse who served in the Philippines and New Guinea, was one of them. After the New Orleans Marine band played "Battle Cry of Freedom," she lowered her poster and talked about the day."

This means a lot to me," she said. "I'm hoping to meet a lot of people who were in my hospital, but I don't know if any of them have lived as long as me. I'm 85."

Making connections was another major theme. Some people, such as Jerry and Jim Theriot, brought pictures of relatives, hoping to run into people who served with them. Fathers hoisted children onto their shoulders to give them a better glimpse of the people who had fought for their country.

Karen Lee and Patty Elliott had come from Hitchcock, Texas, to help their father, George Parker, enjoy the welcome-home parade he should have had 56 years ago."

This is the pride in the victory he never got to experience," said Lee, speaking loudly to be heard above the roar of four fighter jets. She and her sister stood on the Poydras Street neutral ground, holding a 3-by-5-foot American flag as they waited for their father's truck to roll by.

Parker had heard about the 1945 festivities in San Diego, but he couldn't attend them, Elliott said, because he and his fellow sailors were in quarantine on their ship.

On Friday, with no restriction on his activities, Parker was clearly enjoying himself, and he blew kisses to his jubilant daughters.

After his vehicle passed, the sisters stayed put. "Now we're going to cheer for the rest of them," Elliott said. "There might be some whose daughters couldn't come."

In Memory

Some came for those who could not make it; veterans of World War II are dying at an estimated rate of 1,200 a day.

Patricia Doar of Chalmette came for her father, David John Doar Jr., a gunner's mate, 2nd class, on the USS Underhill in the Pacific. He died in 1970 of a heart attack at age 45.

It tugged at her own heart Friday, thinking how much it would have meant to her father to be there with others who had fought in the Pacific. She saw them, these former soldiers now withering and graying, and wondered: "What would Dad look like?"

However, Doar felt sure about one thing: Her father may not be there for the parade, but his spirit would be. So when she left home Friday morning, she grabbed a photo of her father off the wall and tucked it under her arm. He is young in the picture, a smiling sailor unaware of the future. And as the parade passed, Doar held it against her chest, his smiling face peering out at the rolling trucks."

I brought it," she said, "so he can see."

Laurie Conrad of New Orleans brought a photo of her deceased husband, too. John Elmer Conrad Jr., survived the war, but died in 1975, never having recovered from the chest wound he suffered fighting on Tinian."

I just wish he could be here," she said, as her son, Chris Conrad, pushed her along in a wheelchair. " They should have had this parade a long time ago. So many more of them could be here. I looked at the vets. Some of them had trouble getting on the trucks. They needed help. It breaks your heart."

A.J. Frey had put off going to the museum for years, but with the opening of the Pacific Wing, the time had come, said his wife, Claire. His whole family showed up, including several grandchildren who were yanked out of school for the day."

This is history," said Joanne Frey, the mother of one of them. "Why send him to history class, when history is on the street? I talked to his teachers, and they said, "Take him.' "

One granddaughter scrawled a sign reading "Thank you Gradpa." Another grandchild held a pompom in one hand and a video camera in the other.

Their excitement grew as Frey's truck approached."Hold up your signs," Joanne Frey said. "

Everybody salute!"


Their Glory Never Fades