Scores honor vets on Memorial Day

By Diane Wagner

Four World War I biplanes in the sky on Monday gave mute testimony that Memorial Day means more than just a paid holiday.

"They're flying the missing man formation," 13-year-old Duell Willard of Stockbridge said as one of the planes spiraled off from the rest. "That's in honor of prisoners of war and soldiers who are missing in action."

Willard and his sister Airell, 10, along with their grandmother Beverly Wittler and nearly 100 local residents, took 15 minutes on Monday morning to pay their respects to the veterans who have died for this country.

Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 11576 performed the Memorial Day ceremony in The Garden of Honor at Haisten at Eastlawn Memorial Park.

"My father was wounded in battle and he always walked with a limp. But he never regretted it," Wittler said. "My grandchildren have never been to something like this, so I thought I'd bring them before we went shopping and out for lunch."

That's because, up until October 2001, there was no local VFW post to lay the wreath and present the honors.

Post Commander Todd Hunter said he was surprised and pleased at the turnout for the group's first observance, and they plan to make the ceremony an annual event.

"There are a lot of things the VFW is supposed to do, and we're going to bring that back to the community," he said.

Members of the Henry County JROTC acted as color guard. Boy Scouts from Troop 164 in McDonough and Pack 64 in Locust Grove joined the cadets in holding a salute while bugler Jonathan Bagler, a University of Georgia music major, closed the ceremony with a mournful rendition of "Taps."

The touching four-plane fly-over was a special surprise, according to Senior Vice Commander Jim Lee.

Peter Smart, the post's junior vice commander, keeps a plane at his home in the aviation subdivision Mallard's Landing. He spoke about the upcoming ceremony to some fellow pilots, who volunteered their services.

"I don't know who all is up there with Peter, but they're privately owned planes," Hunter said. "His buddies just said they'd like to do it."

The ceremony may have been the most exciting Memorial Day event in Henry and Clayton counties. Public safety officials said there had been no major accidents in either county as of Monday afternoon.

The Georgia State Patrol was predicting as many as 21 traffic fatalities across the state during the three-day holiday weekend.