The officers of the Veterans Memorial Park of The Villages couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day for the Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony on Friday morning.
Under a brilliant blue sky, they honored the 77th anniversary of the attack and the World War II veterans in the crowd.
Warren Alexander, 98, was on an aircraft carrier in Guam during Pearl Harbor. He served in the Navy from 1941-45.
“I never thought as a South Carolina farm boy I would see the world, but I sure did,” Alexander said. “The Navy made a man out of me. God bless the Navy for what they did for me.”
The invited speaker was a teenager who at the age of 13 started a World War II Veterans History Project, a non-profit traveling museum of memorabilia. Now a seasoned 16-year-old, Benjamin Mack-Jackson travels to schools to speak to young people and to events such as the Pearl Harbor remembrance ceremony. He interviews WW II veterans and currently is working on a documentary.
“In 5th grade, my history book covered WW II in two or three pages. I wanted to know more,” said Mack-Jackson.
He began researching and an interest soon turned into a passion.
“My generation doesn’t really understand or have an appreciation of WW II,” he said, adding that his goal is to change that by giving the past a future.
Many of the veterans Mack-Jackson has interviewed have donated items to the traveling museum, ranging from uniforms to photographs to other things used by them personally during the war. Mack-Jackson said bringing those items with him to the schools when he speaks helps him tell the story of WW II.
One of the veterans Mack-Jackson interviewed was at the ceremony. Marine Ryan Beighley, now 94, served from 1942-51. He met Mack-Jackson at the funeral of a fellow Marine he served with during the war. Mack-Jackson had interviewed his friend and they became close.
“I really get to know the veterans I interview, and they become friends,” Mack-Jackson said.
He has since interviewed Beighley – also an outstanding Senior Games athlete – and they have developed a friendship. Beighley donated his haversack and knapsack, invasion money and patches.
At the ceremony, Mack-Jackson brought Beighley to tears when he gave him a football card of Detroit Lions player Jim Martin.
“This man saved my life,” Beighley said. Knowing what an important person Martin was to Beighley, Mack-Jackson found the card on eBay and brought it to him.
Village of Calumet Grove resident Judy Wygonik has attended the Pearl Harbor ceremony at Veteran’s Memorial Park for eight or nine years. Sitting with her was a picture of her father, Jim Tripitt in his Navy uniform.
“I bring him every year,” Wygonik said of her dad, a Pearl Harbor survivor.
Tony Battalia, with a rich, booming voice, sang the national anthem on Friday. The singing of “Let there be Peace on Earth” and “God Bless America” also added to the ceremony, which included the Veterans Memorial Park Honor Guard, the posting of service and organization flags and the presentation of the wreath.
The Veterans Memorial Park of The Villages holds about 12 military ceremonies each year. To find out more, including the schedule, go to thevillagesmemorialpark.org. For more information about Mack-Jackson’s WW II project, go ww2veteranshistoryproject.com.