Commemorating the fallen

The 56th Annual Memorial Day Observance on the USS North Carolina Battleship drew hundreds, including veterans who share their stories of battles fought and comrades lost

WILMINGTON — While plenty of Americans were firing up their grills, out on the boat, or sunbathing by the pool this Memorial Day, thousands were commemorating fallen soldiers who paid the ultimate sacrifice for their country.One of those in attendance for the 56th Annual Memorial Day Observance on the USS North Carolina Battleship was a CIA and NSA veteran who noted today as an especially tough one because during overseas operations.”Eight of my comrades didn’t return home,” the veteran, who wished not to be named, said. “Never forget, it’s important to remember this day.”Regarded as one of the most decorated battleships during World War II and believed to be world’s greatest sea weapon, the Battleship North Carolina now sits on the Cape Fear River across from historic downtown Wilmington. This year’s Memorial Day Observance included speeches from Col. Robert Cooley Jr., U.S. Army Reserve and chairman of the Battleship Commission, and Gov. Roy Cooper. There was also the presentation of the Memorial Wreath followed by a gun salute from U.S. Marines of Headquarters and Service Company.The event was a mix of patriotism, remembrance and tears. For Cheryl Penney and her father, Korean War Navy veteran Danny Salvagno, the event is an annual tradition.”We’ve been out at the Wilmington National Cemetery this morning, we helped put flags out Saturday,” said Penney, who works as the events coordinator for American Honor Guards of North Carolina. “[Salvagno] taught me everything about being a patriot.”For her, that means “to stand up for our country, for our veterans, which is exactly what I’m doing right now.”Justin Cornegay, who served as a staff sergeant during World War II, also attended. During his service he was assigned to a B-24 Liberator bomber and said after returning from duties, “When we landed in Newfoundland we separated and I haven’t seen any of them since.”Of his service and life as a veteran, he said, “It’s never the same. We had some close calls but we came back. It gives me pride to have served my country.”The 2015 U.S. Census reported that today there are 930,000 living veterans who served during World War II, 1.8 million who served in the Korean War, and 6.8 million who served in the Vietnam War.Census Bureau and Department of Defense data notes that during World War II 12 percent of the U.S. population were part of the armed forces. Statistics of World War II fatalities vary, ranging from 50 to 80 million killed in total.The Department of Veteran Affairs reported 291,557 Americans died on the battlefield, with about 11,000 of those being North Carolinians.In 2007, a report released by Department of Veterans Affairs stated that nearly 74,000 Americans had been killed during Gulf War actions from 1990-2007. From 2001 to now, 6,915 Americans have lost their life fighting the “Global War on Terrorism.”When reflecting on the numbers of those who have served and never returned home, it’s important to see why for millions of Americans Memorial Day isn’t about barbecue and beaches, but rather a painful, sobering day of reflection and remembrance.”The cost of freedom … it is high so we must be grateful,” Cooper said to the hundreds in attendance on the battleship. “We must be grateful for the military and what it does for our state and our economy. North Carolina is the most military-friendly state in this country and for good reason.”We must all remember that in order to keep this democracy we have to fight for our freedom, we have to make sure we work hard to preserve our freedom. … Thank God for the men and women who so ably serve our country.”