May 26, 2011By Adam White Observer staff
When he first returned from World War II, all Walt Trepanier wanted to do was forget.
As an Army engineer deployed to the South Pacific, the now-86-year-old Williston man’s experiences in the jungles of New Guinea and the Philippines were “worse than anything.” He remembers freed prisoners of war from Corregidor Island who looked like “walking skeletons,” and working in constant fear of an enemy who was all but invisible.
“We were cutting roads through the jungle, and it was so thick that we could barely see what was right in front of us,” Trepanier said. “It was dangerous, because we never knew where the Japanese were. They were dug into bunkers before we got there.”
Sixty-six years after returning stateside, Trepanier is fighting a different battle – to help keep the memory of departed veterans alive. He is part of a group of Williston veterans from American Legion Post 45 who will hold a Memorial Day service on Monday at the monument park between the Town Hall and Annex to honor the 10 townspeople listed on the memorial monument that were lost in World Wars I and II, the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War.
The 11 a.m. ceremony will include the placement of a wreath at the base of the monument, and words from guest speaker Bill LaPointe, the commander of the Vermont Air National Guard and a Williston resident.
“We want to make sure that veterans are never forgotten,” said Lynn Shepard, a Vietnam vet currently serving as the acting commander of Post 45. “It seems like a lot of people don’t understand what Memorial Day is – a day dedicated to those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.”
Standing beside the monument a week before the ceremony, Shepard and Trepanier agreed that public perception of the holiday does somewhat of a disservice to veterans. Too many people equate Memorial Day only with “picnics and parades,” according to Trepanier, while the true significance of the occasion has faded into the background.
“It’s not supposed to just be a day off from work, and some big party,” Shepard said. “It’s for remembrance.”
Shepard’s recollections of returning home from Southeast Asia are marred with the bitterness that was directed at many Vietnam vets by anti-war activists. He remembers soldiers “being spit on” and called “baby killers,” despite what they felt was a selfless commitment to all Americans.
“We were doing what our country wanted us to do – protect freedom and liberty,” Shepard said. “We live under the stars and stripes now, but we could be living under the Swastika or the hammer and sickle if not for the sacrifices made by veterans.”
The two Williston men recognize that veterans of the recent military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have received far more support from the American public, with Trepanier saying, “it’s about time.” But they also note that those younger generations of vets have not gravitated toward organizations like the American Legion and VFW, at least not yet.
“I think that when you’re younger, you want to forget about what you went through,” Shepard said. “When you get older, you want to tell your story and have it carried on.”
Such a changing of the guard seems necessary in order to keep veterans’ organizations going. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs estimated that in 2008, the number of living World War II veterans had plummeted from approximately 16 million to 2.5 million, with upward of 1,000 more dying each day. Trepanier said that he is “one of the last” WW-II veterans in the immediate area, though his sense of pride at having served in the second Great War hasn’t dimmed with the passing decades.
“I still wear my World War II cap when I go out, and people see it and thank me for my service,” said Trepanier, a resident of the Whitney Hill Homestead who still drives. “It seems like every year, more and more of us old veterans are passing away – but coming up on 87, I’m still going.”
Trepanier said that he helped design the star at the center of the Williston memorial, and was on hand for its dedication in 1994. He said that “a lot of people, mostly big shots like politicians” were present for the dedication, and Post 45 is hoping for a similarly healthy turnout for the Memorial Day ceremony.
“We’re hoping to get at least 100 people, but we’ll see,” Shepard said. “What is most important is that people understand what this day is about.”
And even as they fight to keep the true spirit of Memorial Day alive, Shepard and Trepanier look forward to a day when the Legion and VFW will no longer be needed – and the memories of departed veterans will be distant ones.
“We hope that in our time, there will be no more veterans’ organizations because there will be no more wars,” Shepard said. “But until then, we don’t want those who made the ultimate sacrifice to be forgotten.”