Thirty-eight local veterans representing a cumulative 368 years of service to their country were honored at a luncheon held in their honor at the North Big Horn Senior Center on Tuesday. As always, the room was filled to capacity with community members eager to recognize the veterans for their service to the country by a grateful community on Veterans Day.
Program organizer Rich Fink acted as master of ceremonies at the event. He began with a few staggering statistics, noting that there are 22 million living veterans, of which 20 million are men and 2 million are women. He said 7 million are veterans of the Gulf War or later, 7.2 million are veterans of the Vietnam War, 1.9 million are veterans of the Korean War and 1 million are veterans of World War II.
Senior Center Director Denise Andersen spoke of the importance of honoring the veterans at the special celebration, which has been held at the center for more than 25 years. She said she and the center staff were “tickled” to see the usual large turnout, which filled the center’s dining room to capacity.
Two veterans, Frank Wilkerson and Sam Alexander, were honored with “quilts of valor,” provided by a national organization by the same name. The organization, which is based in Georgia, has distributed more than 100,000 beautifully hand made quilts to veterans. On its website, it states its mission is “to cover service members and veterans touched by war with comforting and healing Quilts of Valor.”
Andersen said, “We want to thank you for your sacrifices and service to this country, and may it honor and heal you as we honor your value, as you were touched by war.”
Alexander was not able to attend the ceremony but received his quilt in absentia. Alexander served in the U.S. Marine Corp for 3½ years in famous battles like Roi-Namur, Saipan and Iwo Jima with the Fourth Marine Division 24th Regiment.
Alexander was only a senior in high school when he enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps, along with his brother Wiley. After completing boot camp in California, he later reported to Colonel Franklin Hart, later a Brigadier General, who commented that he liked Alexander’s “grit.”
He was later based in Maui, Hawaii, and saw much action from that point forward in his career. Alexander was injured by shrapnel and received the Purple Heart.
Wilkerson was present at the ceremony and was presented with his quilt by his nephew Terry, who is also a veteran. In a short speech preceding the presentation, Terry briefly described his uncle’s military career.
Born in Lovell in 1926, Frank was in high school when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
Terry recounted a story of Frank’s older brother Gene, who served in the U.S. Army, telling Frank and his twin brother Fred, to go into the U.S. Navy because sleeping in a foxhole and eating out of a tin can was probably not what they would want to do. He added, “The only down side is that you may have to swim 2,000 miles to get home.”
At that time Frank and his fellow students didn’t think they would get a chance to serve, because they thought it would be a very short war, said Terry.
Based on their older brother’s recommendation, the twins enlisted in the U.S. Navy on June 10, 1944, at the age of 17. They left for boot camp a few weeks later, on June 22, attending the U.S. Naval Training Station in Farragut, Idaho, with graduation on Sept. 7, 1944.
Their initial assignment was on the U.S.S. Lingayen. During their commission on the ship there was an accident and they were reassigned to another vessel. At one point it appeared that the twins would be separated, but they remained in service together for 22 months.
Frank’s travels in the military took him from California to Hawaii to Guam, Guadalcanal, Okinawa, Saipan, the Solomon Islands, the Philippines and Malaysia, then serving as part of the occupying forces in Japan.
“During his service Frank faced many perils, including enemy submarines, suicide bombers and air raids,” said Terry. “He and his brother were able to serve for two years. Frank Wilkerson is one of our many, many heroes that are among us today.”
Lovell Elementary School music teacher Chauna Bischoff’s students performed two patriotic songs. Dale Fowler was bugler at the event. David Peck was the echo bugler. A color guard consisting of local veterans – Terry Wilkerson, Frank Wilkerson, Reed Williams, Alan Sessions, Jim Thomas, Jerry Anderson, Jack Nichols and Butch Fink – presented the flags.
In a very moving moment, North Big Horn Senior Center Director Denise Andersen called out the name of each veteran in the audience. All of the veterans were then asked to stand all at once, showing how many had served in the armed forces from the community.
All veterans attending were treated to lunch courtesy of the Bank of Lovell. Andersen said the Center plans to continue the tradition of awarding the special quilts in the future.
By Patti Carpenter