Merced gives thanks to veterans

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comNovember 11, 2013 

— Those wanting to honor Merced County veterans did not need to look far Monday, with a ceremony in Courthouse Park and the Veterans Day Parade along Main Street.

A Vietnam Veterans of America ceremony also remembered the service of veterans on Monday morning.

The veterans group read a poem before firing off a 21-gun salute and singing, “God Bless America.”

Army veteran Tom Solimini, 59, said it feels good to get some recognition for the time he served in Vietnam, because “we went through hell coming home.” He stood in Courthouse Park during the ceremony Monday.

Solimini said there was a time he was afraid to wear his uniform, because of the backlash returning Vietnam veterans sometimes saw stateside over an unpopular war. He said he’s not ready to say Vietnam veterans get all the recognition they deserve, but it’s improving.

“I used to come out here, and there was nobody out here,” he said. “Lately, there’s been more people coming out.”

Solimini was in the crowd later that day, as dozens of parade entries paid tribute to servicemen and servicewomen. Riders on motorcycles, horses, floats and classic cars, as well as marching bands, took part in the parade that stretched from G to O streets.

After the national anthem began the festivities, the NorCal Crosswinds formation team performed several flyovers with its four planes.

Nancy McElwain, 71, marched in the parade with a flag in her hands. She said she walked to honor veterans such as her husband, Air Force veteran Stuart.

“It’s a wonderful tribute to the men who served and weren’t appreciated when they came home,” she said.

Eight veterans served as grand marshals for this year’s parade:

• Max Buettgenbach, a World War II veteran, joined the Army Air Corps in 1941. He served as an instructor and a pilot in B-29, B-47 and B-52 bombers, for 31 years between his time in the Army Air Corps and the Air Force.

• Dorthea Eldredge served with the Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service. As part of the World War II-era Navy WAVES unit, she was a riveter on a P-38 fighter production line, among other jobs.

• Submariner Bill Hiller served three years during World War II. He went on to serve 18 years in the Air Force, including during the Korean and Vietnam wars.

• Korean War veteran Ken Wenrich started as a gunner in B-29 bombers. He also served as an instructor at bases all over the United States.

• Ernie Conner served in the Air Force for more than 20 years, flying 138 combat missions during Vietnam. As a member of the Atwater Veterans of Foreign Wars, he participates in about 120 burial ceremonies for veterans every year.

• Air Force veteran Jack Kelly completed 22 years of active duty. He worked as an allied forces checkpoint and convoy escort during Vietnam.

• Two of the grand marshals were a married couple, Lee and Cesar Diaz. Lee Diaz served five years at sea in the Navy, sailing Iraqi waters in 2004 and 2005.

• Cesar Diaz, who served with special forces in the Army, completed airborne ranger school. He also served on sniper and counter-sniper missions.

Jim Kanabay of the county’s Veterans Service Office read off each grand marshal’s career highlights during a ceremony in Bob Hart Square before the parade.

“It’s amazing the depth and breadth of citizenship, and just good people we have here in Merced,” he said. “I think sometimes we lose sight of that.”

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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