H enry Gurney stood at the lectern — the emotion audible in his voice — and read aloud a list of names.
Holding back tears, he said each name one at a time: Lawrence Lowell, Morgan Parker, Frank Riley, David Rivette, James Ross, Paul Roth, Ray Beckwith, and several dozen others.
They were peers and classmates, friends and family, and they all lost their lives serving their country.
Whitehall paid tribute Monday to the men and women who died defending America.
A couple of hundred people gathered at Riverside Veteran’s Park for the annual Memorial Day ceremony to pay their respects to the men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The ceremony included remarks from Jim Lafayette of the American Legion, Revs. Michael Flannery and Roberta Proper, Julie Eagan, the exalted ruler of the Whitehall Elks, Mayor Peter Telisky, Supervisor George Armstrong and Barbara Riley, president of American Legion Post 83 auxiliary.
There were also performances by the Whitehall High School band, the Memorial Day address, the playing of taps, poetry readings by elementary school students, the singing of “Amazing Grace” by Jeannine Macura, and the placing of the wreath by Gold Star mother Katherine Aiken.
Reading the roll
But the most somber, and perhaps the most important part of the ceremony, was reserved for Gurney. As is tradition, Gurney read the names of every local serviceman who was killed or is missing in action.
A World War II veteran, Gurney was most emotional reading the names of his peers.
“It is an honor to do this, but it doesn’t get any easier,” he said.
Retired Lt. Col. Michael Rocque, who delivered the Memorial Day address, chose to focus his remarks on World War II in recognition of Gurney and this year’s grand marshal, John Putorti, who served aboard the USS Walker as a radar operator.
Rocque, who graduated from Whitehall in 1976 and served 20 years in the Army, said he counted 1,042 names on the monument, of those who served during the second global war: Men like Putorti, who grew up on Mountain Street and was one of three brothers who served.
He told the crowd that, per capita, the number of enlisted men from Whitehall who served in the war was among the highest in the nation.
“Whitehall’s participation went above and beyond,” Rocque said. Twenty-seven of those names were etched alongside a star, identifying those who never came home.
“Today we take time to honor the 27 men with stars next to their names, especially Ray Beckwith, John’s friend and Henry’s brother in law.”
Beckwith was aboard the USS Franklin on March 19, 1945, when it was hit by enemy fire and destroyed. He was among 724 people who died that day.
Second World War
More than 16 million Americans served during World War II, by far the most of any U.S. military conflict.
“400,000 people never came home from World War II,” Rocque said.
And the number of those who made it home and are still living is decreasing rapidly.
According to U.S. Veterans Administration, a World War II veteran dies every 90 seconds.
There are only 1.5 million World War II veterans still alive today, down from nearly 6 million in 2000.
There were four World War II veterans in attendance during Monday’s ceremony and at least one veteran from every military conflict since was in the crowd.
Each has their name etched on the wall in Riverside Park.
Telisky told the crowd the wall provides perspective and reminds people of the true meaning of Memorial Day.
“It’s not the beginning of summer and barbecues. It’s a celebration of the people on that wall, especially those with a star next to them. We celebrate and honor their sacrifice,” he said.
Armstrong encouraged people to read the names on the wall to remind themselves of the sacrifices that were made to keep us safe.
“Memorial Day is not only a celebration, but a somber reminder of the cost of freedom, our freedom.”