WOONSOCKET – From Concord to Korea, the Museum of Work and Culture yesterday staged a Veterans Day tribute for the ages.
Dignitaries and guests took turns at the podium, singing patriotic songs, reading touching poetry about the sacrifice of war, and recalling the city’s contributions to the Great War that inspired Veterans Day, nearly a century ago.
“Today we come together to thank and honor the veterans,” said Anne Conway, co-director of the museum.
About 150 people braved the coldest day of fall so far to attend the ceremony, which was as colorful as it was poignant. The event kicked off with a blast of cannon fire and featured a slate of war re-enactors wearing authentic battle garb of their particular era, from the white hunting frocks of the Continental Army to the drab olive fatigues of the 1950s. Faux Revolutionary War soldier Kirk Hindman of Bristol carried a reproduction “dog’s head” saber on his hip that he made himself.
Another highlight was co-museum director Ray Bacon’s summary of Woonsocket’s contribution to World War I. With its strong connection to France, the city sent some 2,400 residents off to war, which ended with the signing of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. From the offices of The Woonsocket Call, he said, the news was relayed to all the fire stations, which passed it on to everyone else with unprecedented urgency.
“Within minutes fire alarm bells rang and mill whistles shrieked,” said Bacon. “Hundreds came out and celebrated in the streets. Plants were closed as well as schools and throughout the day the sidewalks held living streams of people.”
Not long after the war, the soldier in charge of the European effort, the French Grand Marshal Ferdinand Foch, visited Woonsocket to pay his respects to the city and the sacrifices its populace had made for the sake of war.
Romeo Berthiaume, a former history teacher, served as moderator for the event, which brought out a number of civic leaders and special guests, including Mayor Leo T. Fontaine, U.S. Rep. David Cicilline (D-RI), State Rep. Lisa Baldelli-Hunt, State Rep. Robert Phillips, Sen. Marc Cote and Councilman Chris Beauchamp. Councilman-elect Robert Moreau watched from the spectator section.
“Throughout the years, our nation’s veterans have bravely stood watch, keeping our country safe and protecting the liberties we hold dear,” Cicilline said. “For all those who have served our nation, we owe a debt that we can never fully repay; in particular, we remember those who have made the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our liberty.”
The ceremony was dedicated to the late Marshall Sloat, a longtime member of the museum’s veterans committee who died in February. Walter Sloat, his son, accepted a plaque recognizing his father’s contributions, presented to him by veterans advocate Roger Petit.
Accepting the tribute, Sloat said his father became keenly interested in veterans affairs because his father – Walter’s grandfather – was killed in World War I.
“They never recovered his body,” Sloat said.
Sloat recalled his father taking him to visit the Tomb of the Unknowns in Washington, D.C., and telling him: “This is your grandfather’s headstone.”
The invocation for the celebration was given by the Rev. Ernest Berthelette, a former military chaplain who ministered to soldiers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and other locales. He later told a moving story about a soldier whose hand was practically blown apart by shrapnel after one battle. Through the miracles of modern medicine, the soldier’s hand was pieced together again.
The soldier could have ended his tour of duty, but he was driven to return the field of battle, to help his comrades finish what they’d started.
The point of the story, Berthelette said, is not that the soldier’s behavior was unique – quite the opposite; it exemplifies a pattern of “spirit, energy and loyalty” emblematic of the American warrior. “You hear these stories many times.”
Veterans Day, he said, was a time to say to all soldiers, “We thank you for your service.”