Norwalker Karry Ballard had hoped her grandfather Isaac, 90, would attend Norwalk's Veterans Day ceremony at City Hall Monday where he received a medal for being the city's first African American to enlist in the mMarines back in 1942, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued a presidential directive allowing African Americans to serve in the Marine Corps.
But she wasn't surprised he stayed home out of the spotlight. He's always been reluctant to talk about his experience.
"I think it's an honor," Karry Ballard said after the ceremony, "but his experience wasn't my experience."
Karry pointed out that this is the second honor her grandfather has received this year.
For being a member of the Marines of Montford Point, the first African Americans in the Marine Corps, Isaac was among a group of marines who were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal back in July.
Montford Point was a facility at Camp Lejeune, N.C. African Americans from all states were not sent to the traditional boot camps of Parris Island, S. C. and San Diego, Calif. Instead, African American Marines were segregated -- experiencing basic training at Montford Point. Approximately 20,000 African American Marines received basic training at Montford Point between 1942 and 1949.
Karry said that when her grandfather returned from receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, he opened up a little bit more about his experiences when prompted to.
"Not much but a little bit," Karry said. "I asked him what made him enter the military when it was still segregated. My grandfather was born in the north so he knew about segregation but did not experience it. You know how someone tells you can't do something; he said he did it to prove a point. And he wanted to do it for his country and his family. He told me he knew he had hit the South when he had to get up and move to the back of the bus."
She went on to say that he never talked about his WWII experiences because he didn't want his children to have a negative view of the country.
"It's an amazing story. This is history that's not taught particularly in our schools," Karry said. "When you see every war picture from the 40s or earlier you don't see men of color. To know they were really active and fighting for their country...which didn't always embrace them."
At the ceremony, organized by the Norwalk Veterans Memorial Committee and led by chairman Dan Caporale, guest speaker Harry Rilling, former Norwalk Police Chief and veteran of the U.S. Navy, shared the amazing stories of two other WWII veterans from Norwalk who made deep impressions on his life, the late Lou Acunzo and the late John Hines.
Rilling once worked at Hines' lock manufacturing factory company in South Norwalk.
"In seeking more information about Lou and John I learned they both had developed a deep sense of love for family," Rilling said. "Perhaps it was because at one point they felt they would not return and see their families again. Perhaps it was because they valued deeply what they fought so hard to achieve. Perhaps it was a combination of both."
Rilling said the two men inspired him to read the book, "The Greatest Generation" by Tom Brokaw.
"I read of many men like John and Lou. Heroes willing to risk their lives to suppress hostile aggression and provide for the freedom we so frequently take for granted. I also found a common theme among people like John and Lou, a reluctance to speak about the horrors which they encountered," Rilling said.
However Hines sometimes would talk about his experience with his grandson Eric, who attended the ceremony with his mom Jan.
"Eric said that every now and then John would go into the basement and return with some little item only he knew the history of," Rilling said. "One time, perhaps a pack of cigarettes or documents from one of the countries in which he served, one time a Nazi officer's hat, another time an armband with a swastika. Once he brought up a German luger, he looked at it and instinctively cleared it to make sure it was unloaded.
"And John shared one story. The people in France were so grateful for being liberated from German occupation, that they would come into the street by the thousands, cheering and throwing food and whatever else they had to say thank you to the troops who had saved their lives. At one point John laughed and said he had gotten hit in the head by a pear. All of the horrors he had faced, that he had suppressed in the deepest places, he remembered the pear."
Rilling concluded by making a plea to veterans to share their stories.
"There are many so many others, some right here in this audience, like John and Lou, humble heroes who have shaped the world in which we live," Rilling said. "You have stories to tell. Do not keep them inside sealed away. We need to hear them. We want to hear them. We want to recognize you for the heroes that you are. Share them with us so we can learn."
After Rilling's speech the American Festival Band performed a medley of service songs and the different branches of the military stood up to be recognized as the hundreds in attendence waved Thank You signs printed by Northrup Grumman in Norwalk.
The Thank You signs started a few years back when Diane Cece made a red, white and blue lettered sign on copy paper to hold up during the annual Memorial Day Parade in Norwalk. She envisioned a sea of Thank You signs and reached out to the corporate sponsor for help.
"I can say from personal experience that seeing a veteran acknowledge our thanks, many hearing it for the first time, is an emotional event for me," Cece said. "Some veterans have wiped away tears when they see the signs, and they often shout back `thank you' to us, which just illustrates once again how special our veterans are -- selfless, grateful and humble."
During his speech, Moccia took a moment to thank the first responders for their efforts during Hurricane Sandy prior to thanking the veterans and all the candidates who ran for office.
"Whether they were elected or not elected they put themselves on the front lines to try and improve our country," Moccia said.
He also urged people to exercise their right to vote.
"You have a loyalty to the men and women of this great country, who have sacrificed their lives, who have given of their time and suffered mental and physical anguish, so you would have that right on that Tuesday in November to be able to go out and vote to ensure we have a democratic nation... . Most of you vote, but those who don't, where's your commitment to those veterans, many of whom are sitting here today."