Updated with information that speaker was from Brier Terrace Middle School.
A humorous, touching essay from a World War II Army veteran — read by a Brier Terrace Middle School Boy Scout — delighted the crowd gathered under mostly sunny skies for the 32nd annual Memorial Day Ceremony at Edmonds Cemetery and Columbarium Monday.
Eli Longacre told the story of 18-year-old Fred Diedrich, who enlisted in the Army in late1943 and became a paratrooper with the 508th Parachute Infantry Regiment, otherwise referred to as the Red Devils.
“My folks weren’t happy about me joining the Army to begin with, but when I wrote home to tell my parents that I was jumping out of an airplane — and a perfectly good airplane — well, you can imagine how that went over,” Longacre said, reciting Diedrich’s first-person essay.
Diedrich was stationed in England, and at 2 a.m. on June 6, 1944 — D-Day — Diedrich’s regiment boarded a C47 that could hold 28 soldiers in full combat gear. They traveled over the English Channel “to a place I’d never heard of — the Normandy Beach of France,” where they parachuted into Normandy several hours ahead of the ground troops. “When we left Nottingham on June 6, there were 2,056 of us; 995 of us returned. There were over 1,000 casualities and over 300 killed in action,” Diedrich’s essay noted.
After returning to England, Diedrich was introduced to Nancy Stanley, who lived with her parents and whose family often hosted American soldiers for dinner. They dated for a time, until Diedrich was shipped out. He asked Nancy to write to him, which she did, and eventually he proposed to her, by mail. By that time, the war was over and Diedrich was stationed with an honor guard in Berlin.
Stanley accepted, and began planning a wedding at St. George Parish in Beeston, but there was a snag — Diedrich received orders to head back to the United States before the wedding date. However, Nancy wrote a letter to Major General James Gavin, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Gavin arranged for Diedrich to make a quick trip to England on General Gavin’s own plane — and the wedding took place as scheduled.
At the end of Longacres’ speech, he surprised the crowd with the news that Diedrich happened to be sitting behind him along with other Memorial Day speakers, and Diedrich — a member of Edmonds VFW Post 8870 — was introduced to the crowd. Then the audience got another surprise — Diedrich’s bride Nancy was sitting next to her husband. Both received enthusiastic applause from onlookers.
Another crowd favorite was a speech by Brier Terrace Middle School eighth-grader Olivia Olson, who read her award-winning VFW essay on “What Patriotism Means to Me.”
“To me, patriotism is being a lighthouse,” Olson said. “It means projecting your love of country for the whole world to see. When the beacon of patriotism is shining, it automatically illuminates a path for others to find their patriotic way.”