Their sacrifice: Families, fellow veterans pay homage to our ‘forgotten warriors’
Ron Scharfe was a 16-year-old kid from Chicago in 1945 when, after forging a birth certificate, he piloted a Higgins boat through the waters of the Pacific to fight in the Battle of Iwo Jima.
On Monday, the 82-year-old Scharfe, who prefers his longtime nickname, “Rondo,” joined hundreds of other veterans at daylong events around Missoula, celebrating the city’s 83rd Memorial Day observance by honoring the men and women of America’s armed forces, fire departments and law enforcement agencies.
“These are people who take pride in their country,” said Rondo Scharfe, who as a Navy corpsman in World War II was one of 15 men on his boat who survived Iwo Jima; 21 others were killed.
“We were in that first wave of boats and they just opened up on us,” Scharfe said of the invasion, which has been characterized as the fiercest battle of the war. “Your knees were shaking so bad you couldn’t hold them together. Guys were throwing up.”
The decorated Navy vet and retired Chicago firefighter has been a Missoula resident since 1974, and said he observes Memorial Day every year, visiting with other veterans to remind himself that he is not alone, neither in his suffering nor in his pride.
“They lose about 3,000 of us a day now,” Scharfe said of his fellow World War II veterans. “It’s kind of scary, but you do your best to stay in shape and you do alright. But I lost 21 guys on that boat, and I still wake up every 10 days or so with the sweats. You just have to put it out of your mind. But you still remember.”
Tom Larson remembers. He remembers the names of the “ones who didn’t make it,” and he remembers that each of those names was once a living, breathing person, with a family and loved ones.
“It makes you do some thinking,” said Larson, a Korean War veteran, as he gazed solemnly out over the rows of white headstones at the Western Montana State Veterans Cemetery in Missoula.
To help others remember, Larson donated money to the Korean War Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., knowing firsthand the powerful effect the memorial has on people when they stare at the polished engravings.
“It’s powerful. It’s really something,” Larson said.
About 300 veterans and their spouses have been interred at the veterans cemetery in Missoula, which was dedicated in September 2008, according to Charlie Crookshanks, a Korean War veteran who attended Monday’s ceremonies in his crisp Navy whites. Crookshanks was chairman of the committee that built the cemetery, which he said is a great tribute to veterans.
“I plan on ending up here,” said George Broadwater, of Missoula, who is also a veteran of the Korean War, having joined the service on his 18th birthday.
“This is the first time I’ve been here. I had to come down and see who’s here,” Broadwater said as he scanned the names etched into marble. “Most of the guys I was in the service with are gone.”
Remembering those who died at war was a sad but unavoidable truth as Missoula observed its Memorial Day, and Elmer Palmer acknowledged those tragic losses in his keynote address at the Rose Park Vietnam Memorial.
Palmer served in the Vietnam War in the United States Marine Corps, as did his brother, Joseph, who passed away earlier this month due to disease complications from exposure to the herbicide Agent Orange.
“Today is a time to honor those forgotten warriors. They lived among us. They followed their country’s orders. Please honor them,” Palmer said.
U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., addressed the crowd during Missoula’s final event of the day at Rose Park, and drew raucous applause from veterans who are gracious for the work he’s done to improve access to health care for veterans.
As a light rain fell, Tester commended members of the crowd for paying tribute to veterans who have fought to “preserve the freedoms, rights and privileges that we enjoy here today.”
“But this should not be the only day that we think about these veterans who fought for our country. Who died for our country,” Tester said. “It is important to think of them every day as we keep this country’s promise to our veterans.”
Before he walked over to Tester to shake the junior senator’s hand and thank him for his devotion to veterans, Rondo Scharfe took a stab at defining what it means to be a veteran.
“A veteran is someone who at one point in his life wrote a blank check to the United States of America, offering this country everything up to and including his life,” Scharfe said. “That’s honor.”