Memorial Day In Belmont: Remembering Those Who Gave Their Lives For The Country

Photo: Memorial Day in Belmont, 2023

Memorial Day Monday arrived in Belmont under a brilliant blue sky as residents, town officials, and veterans came to the Grove Street Cemetery to commemorate the war dead since the Civil War two years after Belmont was incorporated.

For Select Board Member Roy Epstein, those sacrifices include the men and women who fell outside of the wars this country fought. In his speech before the hundreds at Grove Street Cemetery, Epstein told the story of US Army Air Corp Captain Billy Phelps, a pilot who flew B-17 Flying Fortresses over Germany during WWII, surviving the war after his plane was shot down and he was held as a POW.

Three years after that war ended, in June 1948, the Soviet Union, in an attempt to force the American, British, and French forces out of Berlin, blockaded all the roads and railroads to the western sectors of the city to ultimately claim most of post-war Germany for themselves.

“They cut off the supply of food, electricity, and coal to hold the civilian population hostage. President Truman responded by trying to break the blockade by air. This was the Berlin Airlift, which began almost exactly 75 years ago.”

“Amazingly, Phelps volunteered to go to occupied Germany for the Airlift, to fly coal to Berlin instead of bombs. It was again desperate, dangerous work. New Soviet jets harassed the flights and sometimes tried to force American planes down in the Russian zone. Coal dust in the planes caked the controls and blinded the pilots. In letters home Phelps wrote that their planes had become ‘flying wrecks.’ Twice his engines caught fire and he was forced to crash land.”

The few loads of food and supplies grew to a massive unbreakable lifeline thanks to the determination of American and British crews. They eventually delivered millions of tons. It was the Soviet dictator Stalin who gave up and called off the blockade in May 1949.

Epstein remarked that “the Berlin Airlift changed the course of the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created at the end of the crisis. The security created by that alliance has preserved Europe from again becoming a battleground. Our commitment to that alliance is still being tested.”

“In Germany today, memorials fittingly honor the Airlift by calling it ‘a gigantic operation that turned former enemies into friends.’ Do not forget what Germany had been. The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northern Germany, where Anne Frank and countless others perished, was only a few miles from Phelps’ airfield. The Airlift had much more than military importance.”

“Showing we could and would stand up against aggression and injustice helped Germany renounce the inhumanity of the Nazi past. It took another 50 years, but Berlin finally became the capital of a peaceful, united, and democratic Germany.”

“Captain Phelps was part of a small and very special group of pilots in the history of the Airlift. Here’s why. In December 1948, he had a few days left before rotating home to his wife and two new babies. He had to fly another mission after making three round trips the day before. A mile after taking off, his heavily loaded C-54 banked in the rain and fog – and plunged to the ground. Phelps, his copilot, and his flight engineer were all killed.”

Just like in 1948, “[a]s we confront problems in the world today, let’s remember and draw inspiration from people like Billy Phelps. Let’s hope that the American ideals, generosity, and sacrifice that made the Berlin Airlift possible will always be a beacon for those who struggle for freedom, dignity, and human rights,” said Epstein.

This year’s observance included speeches, prayer, and the Belmont High Marching Band accompanying the marchers from the cemetery to the Veteran’s Memorial at Clay Pit Pond.

Belmont Veterans Agent Bob Upton and Kip Gaudet, Jr., Waverley VFW Post 1272’s commander, hosted the annual event recognizing the town’s fallen heroes. “We remember those of Belmont who have served those who have made the ultimate sacrifice,” said Upton.

United States Army veteran and the newly installed pastor of the Open Door Baptist Church Tim Robinson, gave the day’s prayer, thanking those who had fallen for their courage, selflessness, and devotion to duty and praying for those who have lost loved ones and service to this great nation that you would continue to comfort them with the peace that only a supreme being can bring.

State Sen. Will Brownsberger and State Rep. Dave Rogers read a proclamation together from Massachusetts Governor Maura Healy, saying it was appropriate that all Massachusetts citizens remember the bravery of those who gave their lives so that their sacrifices serve as a reminder of the cost of our freedom.

Keynote speaker retired US Marine Colonel, combat veteran, and lifelong Belmont resident Mike Callahan spoke on learning more about those to sacrificed their lives for future generations.

“So as we read the names and play taps, and again recall stories of features that never played out,” said Callahan, the Belmont Veterans Memorial Committee chair. He encouraged residents to learn more about the men from Belmont who gave their lives, like James Paul White, for which the Field House at Harris Field is named, who was killed during the Battle of the Bulge, and MIA Jerry Burns, who was presumed died in the Korean War. There are Belmont football teammates Edward Teddy Lee and Walter Donny Ray, who both died in Vietnam, and Jonathan Curtis, who died in Kandahar nearly 13 years ago today.

“As we reflect on their ultimate sacrifice to the friend, the freedoms that we all enjoy each day, and freedoms that far too many Americans take for granted, let us pledge to keep their memories alive. Doing this is as much for them as it is for future generations. For if we are to retain our freedoms, that has been one for us, then similar sacrifices will almost certainly be required in the future.”

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