Veterans share stories for Dillon’s annual Memorial Day Service
Vietnam war veteran Rob Mitchell stepped up to the podium, solemnly sharing the story of a fallen comrade: Major Charles Joseph Watters, a Medal of Honor recipient, served in the same battalion as Mitchell.
“I said my goodbyes to Joe upon leaving the battalion for my return to the states” Mitchell said. “And during the time I was in Colorado, awaiting my second tour, I’d be thinking of those who remained.”
The news hit Mitchell in November of 1967. Watters and several other comrades were killed in the battle of Dak To, a major offensive in the highlands of Vietnam. Mitchell said he was stunned, not only at the number of men who had died during the battle, but also that Watters, in a rear echelon assignment, should have been further away from the fighting. Instead, Watters rushed unarmed into the line of fire, carrying the wounded to medical treatment.
“Joe was credited with saving numerous troops during that daylong fight, without firing a shot. You see, Joe hadn’t even been issued a rifle,” Mitchell said. “In retrospect, Joe, you saved my life by your unselfish act to live a life that I can dedicate to you and those who didn’t survive.”
With a weighted pause, he added, “As I reflect back again today, because of your caring and strength, I owe you for the life that I have and am eternally… in your debt.”
Mitchell’s speech was just one story in Dillon’s annual Memorial Day Ceremony, where residents came to honor veterans in their words and place flags next to their graves at the cemetery. Dillon Police Chief Mark Heminghous listed off the names of 52 veterans, from WWII, Vietnam, Korea and others, who lay at the base of Tenderfoot Mountain.
Sue Chamberlain, a former resident of Frisco, left Summit County to serve as a nurse in the U.S. Army Corps during WWII. She reached the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Army Nursing Corps before she passed away in 2005 at her Frisco home.
“One of those names gave me chills,” said Vietnam veteran and former Summit County Commissioner Gary Lindstrom after the reading. “Sue Chamberlain was a good friend of mine; I knew her for many years.”
Music and memory
This year, like many ceremonies in the past, the Summit County Concert Band punctuated the ceremony with music, while speakers stood to make tributes to their fallen comrades and share stories of service. As Summit Concert Band Director Beth Steele performed taps, the Silverthorne Boy Scout and Cub Scout troops retired the flag, folding it 13 times into a neat triangle before hoisting up a new one.
“I had a Boy Scout that I went to grade school with… he was in a Boy Scout troop with me and was a trumpeter who played taps,” said WWII and Korean veteran Bruce “Boot” Gordon. “Every time I hear ‘Taps,’ I think of him.”
Both Gordon and his friend served in WWII, but the young trumpeter died in Korea, along with three other of Gordon’s friends. Gordon said he nearly lost his life twice in WWII, getting the nickname “Boot” after he jumped out of his plane, catching the parachute just in time to save his life but losing both of his boots.
Gordon shared another story from when he was flying over the oil fields of Borneo in a Lockheed P-38 Lightning. He lost control of his plane and found himself plummeting in a high-speed dive from 30,000 feet, breaking the speed of sound.
“It’s not funny because when you hit the speed of sound there’s no control over the airplane,” he said.
After he unbuckled his seatbelt, preparing to eject from the plane, he managed to regain control at the last minute.
“A little voice said, ‘Trim it.’ I hear God or somebody else trying to tell me to save my life, and I argue” Gordon laughed.
Listeners cheered as he told his story, before Mitchell stepped up again to speak in honor of the families in attendance that morning.
“The families are my heroes. Their loved ones will never grow old; they will always be warriors,” he said. “It’s the families that deserve our recognition on a day like today. They are living that war. They are living that experience with their loved ones every day, all day long.”
The ceremony ended with a nod to the future, as Dick Brenner, chair of the Dillon Cemetery Advisory Committee, displayed plans for the future of the cemetery. Brenner said the committee has already worked to name 100 unmarked graves; only 40 remain. He and Public Works Director Scott O’Brien are working to add a shelter, a cremation garden, signs and new spaces to the historic cemetery in the future.
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