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Pearl Harbor, D-Day war heroes at Lathrop Memorial Day program
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The laying of the wreath on the Veterans Memorial Wall at Valverde Park in Lathrop with Mayor J. Chaka Santos, left, and HMC Clifton Barnett of the US Navy during Mondays Memorial Day program. - photo by ROSE ALBANO RISSO

LATHROP – The bombing of Pearl Harbor. The invasion of France at Normandy. The Battle of the Bulge.

On Monday, during the Memorial Day event at Valverde Park in Lathrop, these were not just words from a World War II history book. They were there in flesh and blood, at the granite Veterans Memorial Wall that was built four years ago as part of the $4 million expansion and beautification of the community park.

There was John Bacon, one of the handful of Pearl Harbor survivors who are still alive today to share the story of that “day that will live in infamy.” The veteran, who was the featured speaker of last year’s Memorial Day observance, even brought along to share a framed picture of him as a young man in uniform.

Sharing the horrors of the war during the invasion of France at Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, among other fierce battles in these parts of Europe during World War II was none other than Earl “The Pearl” Watson, retired Army veteran who now lives in Fresno. In his own words, he shared with those gathered in front of the veterans’ memorial how it was like stepping onto the beaches at Normandy.

“The invasion started about eleven at night and we went over about two o’clock in the morning. We sailed from Portsmouth, England to Le Havre, France on June 6, 1944. It looked like daylight because of all the bombing, fires, and guns. It was a horrible scene in his Normandy,” Watson noted in autobiography, “Doorman to the Stars.”

“I had no idea where we were going to land. We were packed into the landing craft like sardines, listening to the sounds of war all around us. When we hit the beach and the ramp dropped, I thought we were going to die. Many died that morning as they stepped onto the beaches. We landed during a lull in the shooting as the Germans were pulling back. We were lucky and got right ashore, but there were bodies all around. I tried to keep moving. I ran out of ammunition and had to take some off a dead soldier.”

The war hero said in his speech that his ammunition actually ran out seven minutes after landing.

The Roll Call and Tolling of Bell, where program committee member Arnita Montiel announced the name of a fallen Lathrop war hero with co-chairman Brent Maynor responding “no answer” followed by the tolling of the bell, was one of the day’s highlights. Others include the placing of the wreath on the wall by Mayor J. “Chaka” Santos and Hospital Corpsman 3rd Class Clifton Barnett of the US Navy, accompanied by the electronic Taps, and the introduction of Gold Star families. The Gold Star families are those with members who have died in any of the wars. They included former two-time Lathrop mayor Bennie Gatto whose uncle, Pvt. James Joseph Chio of the U.S. Army, was killed during World War I in Europe; brothers John and Frank Mendes of Manteca whose brother Cpl. Alvin R. Mendes of the U.S. Army was killed in battle during World War II; and Josephine Tafoya whose brother, PFC Joseph Tafoya of the U.S. Army, was killed in Vietnam.

The posting of the colors was performed by members of the Lathrop High School JROTC. The school’s band led by director Desiree Bugarin, provided the musical number. Invocation was led by Pastor Bill Barnett of Grace Community Church, with Pastor Jim Todd of Crossroads Grace Community Church in Manteca leading the benediction. The Pledge of Allegiance was led by Connor Edward of Boy Scouts Troop No. 422.

In closing the program, committee chairman Omar Khweiss, himself a U.S. Marine Corps veteran who works at J.R. Simplot, shared his personal story about the Korean War veteran whom he called “Uncle Father Paul” and how he failed to take the time to “visit the man that always had time for me when no one else truly did.”

Khweiss said he was sharing that sin of omission, which stays with him today, “to encourage you to not just remember those who have passed and made the ultimate sacrifice, but to also honor those that are still here, whether they are a war veteran, a relative that you haven’t seen or spoken to in years, or just a friend or neighbor that would love to hear from you.”

Refreshments served after the program was provided by the Lathrop Lions Club.