NAUGATUCK — With three airplane crashes under his belt, warrant officer Ernie Stewart said he is lucky he’s not one of the fallen war dead honored on Memorial Day.
His first crash occurred over Japanese-held Formosa, now Taiwan, during World War II, when the B-24 upon which Stewart was nose gunner took a hit from anti-aircraft fire, lost two engines and ditched in the sea.
The second, in 1947, occurred when his B-29 got lost during a return flight from the North Pole to Alaska. They were forced to land on the north coast of Greenland, where they were rescued 11 days later.
The third, in May 1947, left three crew dead and Stewart in a full body cast, with badly burned hands and a broken neck. But flying into that hill in Alaska eventually led the future school teacher to happiness.
“Things turned out well because I was assigned to a military hospital in Georgia, where I met a beautiful blonde nurse,” said Stewart, who now lives in Shelton. “I married her.”
Stewart told a streamlined version of his war story to great applause Monday during the ceremony that followed the Naugatuck Memorial Day parade. He was the grand marshal of the parade.
The parade drew thousands downtown, lining the streets on blankets and in their folding chairs to wave flags, admire the marching bands, and thank the waves of veterans marching past.
Children scrambled after candy tossed to them by passing Girl Scout troops, while their parents snapped photographs of a tank that rolled by and of Portuguese dancers in their beautiful native costume.
But it was the veterans who stole the show. Many of them were locals, called out to by name by neighbors who spotted them from the sidelines. Men and children saluted them, while women blew kisses at them.
According to Tom Cannavaro, who spoke to the crowd gathered on the borough Green on behalf of the Disabled American War Veterans, the Naugatuck Memorial Day Parade is the best.
“We have been in these parades with you guys for 13 years,” he said. “We are in different parades every year all over the state, and we’d rather come here. This is the greatest parade we’ve ever been in.”
He praised the organizers, for keeping the focus on the true meaning of the holiday, and the respectful crowds, who always show up in number and manage to have fun without losing sight of the sacrifice.
Life is not always fair, Mayor Bob Mezzo told the crowd gathered around the green’s gazebo. That common phrase can be heard on ballfields and unemployment lines, and in board rooms, Mezzo said.
“It would seem no fate could possibly be more unfair than to have life extinguished before it truly begins,” he said. “Life sacrificed not in the pursuit of personal glory or wealth, but for people they did not even know.”
To honor them, Mezzo urged the crowd to cherish the little things that those who live often take for granted — a cool summer breeze or the embrace of a spouse — that those who have died cannot have.
“Always fair? Certainly not,” he said. “Often taken for granted by us, made possible by those fallen heroes who have been taken too soon.”