November 5, 2016 - 10:27 pm
As the last brassy note of a military march floated through a Henderson amphitheater Saturday morning, a uniformed JROTC cadet walked to the center of the stage and delivered the names of eight Henderson veterans who died in the last year.
“Teodoro Martinez. Dr. Melvin J. Bagley. Calvin Dee Bracken. Dr. David L. Holmes,” the cadet said, pausing deliberately after each name. “Charles Paul Brink. Teofilo D. Martinez, Sr. Clae ‘C.T.’ Crawford. John Medley.”
The names have been etched into the city’s Veterans Memorial Wall at the Henderson Events Plaza, where a throng of people including keynote speaker Col. Paul J. Murray from Nellis Air Force Base, Henderson Mayor Andy Hafen and city council members gathered after the ceremony to erect a wreath of red, white and blue carnations.
“On Veterans Day we honor all those Americans who have shown their bravery and commitment to our nation through their military service,” Hafen said in an statement from the city about its annual Veterans Day Ceremony. “We owe it to the men and women who defended our freedoms to recognize their sacrifices and to honor their military service.”
In the crowd of about 600 people — including military members, local veterans groups, JROTC members and Henderson Symphony Orchestra players — two 90-year-old World War II veterans struck up a conversation at the Veterans Memorial Wall upstairs from the ceremony.
Chester “Chet” Swafford and Les Burgwardt sat in front of one of the engraved panels, chatting about serving in the Navy and Army Air Corps, remembering what it was like to grow up during the Dust Bowl and shaking their heads at how easy young people have it today.
“Well, I’m 6 months older than you,” said Swafford, who turns 91 next week and retired from the military in 1966. “You’re just a kid yet.”
“Oh my God, you’re an old man,” retorted Burgwardt, who will be 91 in May.
It wasn’t until a few minutes into talking that Swafford and Burgwardt realized they already knew each other from when they were neighbors nearly 10 years ago.
Burgwardt recalled reading a copy of Swafford’s self-published memoir, calling it a classic and a “gem.”
In the book and in his conversation with Burgwardt, Swaffer described off-loading near the Philippine island Leyte and called himself lucky for being sent as a replacement.
“I got to wade in the same water McArthur did,” Swafford said. “’I shall return!’ There he was standing in the water.”
Burgwardt chuckled and said he was lucky to have been a replacement during the Invasion of Lingayen Gulf.
“I’m no damn hero,” he added.
“You certainly are,” Swafford replied. “Anybody that lives 90 years has got to be a hero. You’re doing something right.”
The pair later realized they both moved about 10 minutes from their old neighborhood and live down the street from one another once again. Swafford’s son took down Burgwardt’s phone number and promised to get the two friends together for coffee so that Burgwardt could get a copy of Swafford’s book, this time to keep.
Greg Sikes, who served in the Navy from 1986 to 2009, had approached Swafford after the ceremony and became emotional after their conversation.
“My papaw was in the Army Air Corps,” Sikes said, wiping tears from the corners of his eyes. His grandfather didn’t know Swafford, but both men served in the Army Air Corps before it branched off and became the U.S. Air Force after World War II.
“I’ve always been tied pretty emotionally with the military,” he said. “Any of the WWII veterans — I’ve always felt just a kinship.”
His grandfather’s was truly the greatest generation, he said with admiration, adding that servicemen during World War II didn’t hesitate when their country needed them.
“There was no ‘I don’t want to go’ type thing — they just went,” he said, his voice shaky on a few words. “You don’t get that as often anymore. And they’re passing away, so they should be continually recognized.”
Contact Kimber Laux at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0283. Follow @lauxkimber on Twitter.