755 Eighth Avenue South, Naples, FL
NAPLES — After serving as a combat nurse in the European theater during World War II, Naples resident Katherine Nolan says she attends any event that honors veterans while she still can.
“My service during World War II was the high point of my life, and it was a very important part of history,” said Nolan, who met her now-deceased husband, James, during her first military assignment. “We’d be in a very different world if things hadn’t gone the way they did. We could have lost (the war) very easily many times, and while I’m still alive, I want to keep the memories alive so that the younger people know the sacrifices that have been made for this country.”
Nolan — who was clad in full uniform — was one of about 100 people who attended a formal Armed Forces Day ceremony Saturday at Cambier Park in downtown Naples.
Armed Forces Day was created in August 1949 to replace separate Army, Navy and Air Force days, which all paid special tribute to the men and women who serve or have served in the U.S. military.
The single-day celebration — which is held annually on the third Saturday of May — stemmed from the unification of the Armed Forces under one department, the Department of Defense.
The Norwich University Naples Alumni Club organized the event, which also celebrated the completion of the first phase of the park’s Veterans Memorial wall renovation.
“Today it is critically important that the (41) Naples men whose names are on the other side of this wall and who died for our country be remembered and properly honored,” said James “Jim” Elson, a retired U.S. Army captain and president of the Norwich University Naples Alumni Club. “It is our goal to restore, improve and maintain this memorial for future generations.”
Norwich University, located in Northfield, Vt., was founded in 1819 and claims to be the first private military college in the U.S. and the birthplace of the nation’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) program.
The Cambier Park Veterans Memorial wall — which was built in 1984 — honors local members of the Armed Forces who died in any U.S. war from World War I to the current war in Afghanistan.
During the event, American flags surrounded the memorial wall and the Museum of Military Memorabilia brought five restored Army Jeeps and military uniforms for the public to see.
A performance by the Barron Collier High School drum line kicked off the celebration, which took place immediately after a festival in the park. The highlights of the ceremony included the raising of the flag on the new 45-foot flagpole and the awarding of a Purple Heart to the Rev. Juan M. Torres, who served as a corporal in the Army and a technology sergeant in the Air Force.
“I’m happy to have it, and I’m so happy to have served my country for 21-and-a-half years in the Army and Air Force,” Torres said.
Torres, a Pine Island resident, served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars and was injured in 1950 by a hand grenade that exploded soon after it bounced off his back. Torres didn’t receive his Purple Heart until now because complications arose after he lied about his age when he enlisted in the Army as a minor.
“I think it’s a wonderful thing that veterans should be honored in their own communities and by their own people,” Torres said. “It’s a wonderful thing that they’ve done here.”
Naples resident and retired Army Gen. Joseph Cutrona, 90, pinned the Purple Heart on Torres’ uniform during the ceremony. His 30 years of military service spanned WWII, the Korean War and the Vietnam War. In addition, Cutrona said he helped liberate the first concentration camp during WWII.
“It makes me feel pretty good,” Cutrona said of the Armed Forces Day ceremony.
Recently retired Marine Sgt. Jemel Maloney, who served four years in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, attended the ceremony and helped raise the new American flag.
“It is very good that they’re doing all this to honor veterans,” Maloney said. “A lot of people would just walk by and not even know anything was going on, and it’s good that we have support from people here and all over.”
So far, the Norwich University Naples Alumni Club has raised almost $25,000 from Collier County residents to complete the first stage of the memorial’s restoration, but the group needs an additional $25,000 to complete the final stage of the project. Future improvements will include benches and replacement and restoration of the granite and the fountain.
“I think it’s wonderful because a veteran should never be forgotten,” said Kenneth Killilea, a retired Marine corporal, who enlisted in the Marines the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and served until 1945.