PAWTUCKET — It is sometimes said that being the only state in the nation that marks Victory Day with an official holiday gives Rhode Island a distinction of a dubious sort, but for John Leclair it is anything but.
As the city man attended a wreath-laying ceremony to mark the occasion at Veterans Park Monday, he brought with him two type-written pages detailing the horrors his father endured after the World War II Army medic was captured on the Philippine island of Battan in 1942.
Along with his fellow POWs, Sgt. John Howard Leclair was forced from one prison camp to another in the infamous Bataan Death March. Beatings and forced labor were the norm, even for the sick and wounded, many of whom died for want of medical attention
His father survived the abuse and worked for many years as a dental technician after the war.
But he eventually went on disability because of head injuries he suffered at the hands of his Japanese captors.
He rarely spoke of the wartime past, but Leclair unearthed his father's secrets from the personal memorabilia he left behind after his death in 1999. He learned his father had prepared the synopsis of the Bataan Death March as testimony for a war crimes tribunal, said Leclair.
“This was always an important day for my father,” said Leclair. “It was always an important day for my family. We've been coming to this ever since the 1950s.”
Leclair was among 60 or so people who attended the Victory Day observance at Roosevelt Avenue and Exchange Street, sponsored by the Pawtucket Veterans Council.
A highlight of the ceremony included the laying of a wreath at the Veterans Monument, with a special remembrance reserved for the late James E. Brennan, another Army veteran of the Bataan Death March who passed away this spring.
Brennan also happens to have been the younger Leclair's uncle. Though Brennan, his mother's brother, and his father, served in the Philippines at the same time, they never crossed paths during the war, said Leclair.
The guest speaker for the event was Lt. Col. Brian Trapani, a Rhode Island National Guard helicopter pilot and career guardsman who served for a year in Iraq in 2005.
Mayor Donald Grebien and State Veterans Affairs Director Dan Evangelista also shared the speaking platform, while Jack Lucas, executive secretary for the Pawtucket Veterans Council served as master of ceremonies.
It was one of just two events to mark the day organized by veterans groups in the entire state, including another in Newport.
“Keep it,” was Trapani's admonition when asked if the state should continue marking Victory Day as a holiday. “Anything that causes you to pause. War is a terrible thing. It's just a reminder you want to do everything you can to avoid it. You want to do everything you can to preserve peace, even if it means going to war sometimes.”
For a younger generation of veterans coming home from from Iraq and Afghanistan, said Trapani, Victory Day serves as an important reminder that freedom isn't always free.
Rhode Island has been marking the surrender of Japanese forces on Aug. 14, 1945, for decades as an official holiday, known colloquially as “VJ Day” for Victory over Japan. And for much of that time, it wasn't alone. As memories of war faded and Japan morphed into an ally of the United States, however, fewer and fewer states continued to mark the occasion as a state holiday until, in 1975, when Arkansas bowed out, Victory Day became an only-in-Rhode Island event. Every year there's a spate of newspaper stories about it in which it is almost treated as a novelty.
Amid the rise of political correctness in the 1980s and 1990s, there were increasing calls for the abolition of the holiday. But the nearest the legislature ever came was passing a resolution in 1990 proclaiming that “Victory Day is not a day to express satisfaction in the destruction and death caused by nuclear bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki” — the attacks which, historians agree, put a decisive end to the deadliest conflict of modern times.
In 1999, the state also passed a law forbidding the holiday from being called anything else but Victory Day, another apparent effort to homogenize the occasion by emphasizing not just the defeat of Japan, but Hitler and America's other enemies in Europe, too.
Penelope Trottier of the Ladies Auxiliary for the Walter G. Gatchelle VFW Post won't have any of that, however. The wife of Post Commander Maurice Trottier says she was just five years old when President Truman announced the victory over Japan, and she can still remember the spontaneous jubilation of children running into the streets clanging pots and pans.
“It was a big, BIG day,” Trottier said after being invited to the lectern to speak. “I hope Rhode Island never forgets VJ Day,” she added, emphasizing the forbidden verbiage.
Marc Kohler of East Providence, whose uncle crashed a fighter plane over Tokyo and died during World War II, echoed those sentiments as he, too, was invited to address spectators. The Japanese Imperial Army was a vicious and inhumane force responsible for far greater carnage than even Hitler, says Kohler. Yet history — at least from the American vantage point — largely gives the Japanese a pass, probably because most of their victims were Chinese.
“They've never apologized for it, they've never made amends for it, they've never publicly acknowledged they regret anything they did,” said Kohler. “If this holiday were stopped I'd be very sad. As long as I'm here I'll be here to celebrate.”
For Mayor Grebien, Victory Day isn't about the victory over Japan, but something “much more important” — freedom. Or, as he put it, “It's about the sacrifices that allow us to enjoy this summer day just as we choose.”