Marco Island gave an early Christmas present to the island's military men and women on Tuesday. The Christmas Holiday Veterans' Salute, a Christmas Island Style event, filled the Rose History Auditorium Tuesday evening for a blend of patriotic spirit and Christmas spirit.
Music was provided by the New Life Community Church of God praise band and choir, a military air by the Lely High School JROTC Color Guard, and an artistic flair by Malenda Trick, who had three of her veteran portraits on display.
Technically, explained Jim Lang, Commander of VFW Post #6370, the evening was also a VFW monthly meeting, as required by the organization's bylaws, although it may have broken a record for the shortest VFW meeting on record.
"Our members would rather come here," explained Lang, largely because "we don't serve wine," which was offered after the evening's program. "Post 6370 is now open for business," he announced. "Do I hear a motion to adjourn?"
Motion and second were quickly provided by Herb Savage and Owen Carr, both vets and the subjects of Trick's brush, and with business concluded, the colors trooped, the invocation and Pledge of Allegiance intoned, the program proceeded.
"Every evening we lay down in a bed that has a blanket of freedom," said Christmas Island Style chairman Steve Stefanides. The threads of that blanket, he said, are woven from the valor and sacrifice of military veterans.
"There are no words to thank our veterans, no way those of us, including myself, who never served, can understand the sacrifice" they provided, said Keith Dameron.
For the evening's guest speaker, the crowd heard from one of those veterans, who had a unique story to tell from his combat service in the South Pacific during World War II. Harry Donovan, who splits his year between Ohio and Marco Island, is visible in one of the iconic photographs of that war, splashing ashore at Leyte next to General Douglas MacArthur.
It was a major event in the war when MacArthur made good on his famous promise, "I shall return," issued when he escaped from the Philippines as Japanese forces overran the islands nearly three years earlier.
Donovan, just 17 years old at the time, was the coxswain of a Navy Higgins boat, or landing craft, and didn't even know he was in the presence of legend. It wasn't until a few years ago, he told the audience, that he realized he appeared in the photo that has been reproduced all over the world.
Donovan spoke of bloodier and less ceremonial landings, including the time when he beached his boat and disembarked 32 GIs, only to see them almost instantly cut down to the last man.
"In moments, they were wiped away," he told, his voice choking with emotion. He went back for another contingent, putting his own life in great jeopardy, only to see them decimated as well.
"I could have been court-martialled," he said. "I went back to the ship and told the captain, 'we need more air bombardment. We're not doing it right,'" and refused to deliver any more troops for slaughter. "He threw me in the brig," said Donovan, but he was summoned the next morning and told, "You could have been right. Get back to work."
If the talk was military, the music was Christmas. Rev. Greg Barrett led the New Life choir in a series of traditional Christmas songs – of the Jesus, not the Santa Claus, variety. Accompanied by drums, guitar, and bass, they sang songs such as "Go Tell It on the Mountain."
Barrett's wife Tica Barrett, with her husband on keyboard, soloed on "I'll Be Home for Christmas," which kind of brought the program full circle, as Bing Crosby's 1943 hit undoubtedly caused a lump in the throat of many soldiers in the farflung theaters of war all those decades ago.