Veterans, their families and members of the community filled the Clovis Veterans Memorial District on Saturday to honor prisoners of war and remember those missing in action.
The ceremony was part of the 2018 POW/MIA Remembrance Day event, hosted by Jim Anderson and the Clovis VFW Post 3225.
To start things off, master of ceremonies David McFerrin – a 40-year retired Air Force veteran – called on a decorated Vietnam veteran to begin the posting of flags precession by walking an American Flag across the stage dressed as none other than Abraham Lincoln.
“Thank you Mr. President,” McFerrin said jokingly as Mr. Lincoln planted the flag in the ground and took his seat on stage.
The atmosphere of the whole event was somber, but light, happy and grateful. The auditorium was full of veterans, family of veterans, boy scouts and a humbling amount of our young future marines, sailors and soldiers.
After the posting of flags, Paul Loeffler – who locals may know as the play-by-play voice of the Fresno State Bulldogs and the radio host of “Hometown Heroes,” a weekly show that honors and tells the stories of vets from all over – had the honor of introducing Vern Schmidt, a veteran of the 90th Infantry Division in Europe during WWII and commander of the local American Ex-Prisoners of War organization.
Schmidt kept the event lighthearted and fun, cracking jokes with his knowing audience about the “Hanoi Hilton” while more seriously recognizing prisoners of war (POW) such as, but not limited to: Jack Schwartz, Joe Soldo, Robert Uyesaka, Robert McCracken, and their families.
Schwartz was captured by Japanese forces three days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and is the oldest living World War II prisoner of war at the age of 103. He was held captive for three years and nine months and after his liberation, re-enlisted in the armed forces.
Soldo was recognized as a WWII POW survivor who was held captive from December 1944 to April 1945. He marched all across Germany and Poland and eventually escaped by hiding in a giant soup pot until liberation forces were present. Soldo’s son, Andy Soldo, who works for the City of Clovis, was in attendance with his wife Penny.
Pfc. Robert Uyesaka of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, medical detachment was in attendance with his Congressional Gold Medal. Uyesaka was incarcerated at Poston Camp 1 during WWII.
Robert McCracken and his wife Betty, who is the district president for Madera Auxiliary Post 1981, were in the audience. McCracken is a Vietnam veteran who started as a Navy Corpsman Medic when he joined the service in 1962 in San Diego. He is originally from Campbell, California.
Throughout the event, everybody hugged and gave knowing pats on the back to the men who have served for our country, and the women who stood by their sides, or are now widows because of war.
Schmidt put quite a bit of emphasis on the widows and wives of those brave men, naming those brave women as the second part of what he calls the “Three S’s – service, sacrifice and survival.”
One great example of a woman who has endured all three of the S’s is Marlene Raffety – a German-born member of the Clovis VFW (Veterans of Foreign Wars) and an avid volunteer at the Fresno VA hospital. When she crossed the stage to shake the hands of the POW survivors she turned to the audience earnestly and just said, “Thank you.” She wanted to show her gratitude to the veterans for liberating her country, and thus liberating her and her family.
After Schmidt was done recognizing the POWs and the audience had dried their tears and wiped their noses, it was time for Capt. Aaron Raidt of the Army Recruiting Company to honor those who are still considered MIA (Missing in Action).
“Remember this number: 82,224” Raidt said. “I’ll say that number again,” he said, after a pause. “82,224 – this is the estimated number of service members missing from WWII, Korea, Vietnam, etc.”
He explained that in WWII alone, there are an estimated 79,000 MIA service members. “This is why we are here today,” Raidt said seriously. “This principle of ‘leave no man behind’ is as real to us [service members] as the air we breathe.”
After Raidt spoke, audience members, mostly the future service men and women of the crowd, lined up to shake hands with Raidt and the POW survivors on the stage.
“POW/MIA events are near and dear to every service member,” said Raidt.