NORTH READING — North Reading’s 2022 Veterans’ Day ceremony was a moving tribute to the heroes among us, both past and present.

Over 300 townspeople turned out on an unseasonably warm day for mid-November last Friday at the top of the Town Common, just steps from the town’s five war memorials, to both celebrate current veterans and to recognize the contributions of the town’s 51 known Purple Heart recipients as the town officially became a Purple Heart community.

High above the crowd that had gathered underneath the tall flagpole there billowed two flags – the traditional Stars and Stripes and a new addition temporarily in place of the POW flag – the Purple Heart flag, which incorporates both the Purple Heart medal with the familiar bust of Gen. George Washington, who initiated the first Purple Heart medal of valor. This flag includes the slogan: “Honoring America’s Combat Wounded Veterans.”

Shortly after the ceremony began, a hawk began circling the skies directly above the flagpole, as if on patrol in the skies over Vietnam, as the crowd would soon learn their late friend and neighbor, John Wiklanski, had done over 50 years earlier aboard the helicopter gunships known as “Firebirds.” He was a crew chief in Chu Lai, Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 and for his heroism, he was awarded two Purple Hearts, two Air Medals with “V” device and the Vietnamese Army Medal. He was shot down five times, the first time just three weeks after flying his first mission, on May 5, 1968. Blown out of the helicopter from the force of the explosion, and with a broken arm and a severe gash on his backside, he was separated from his other severely wounded crew members who all thought he was dead. But he spent hours alone near the crash site avoiding enemy capture while praying for a rescue as the North Vietnamese Army was operating at least nine anti-aircraft guns while hundreds of their soldiers, armed with AK-47s, were taking cover in the same brush where “Ski” was trying to hide. He was awarded his first Purple Heart following his rescue.

Ski’s second Purple Heart was awarded for his heroism in aerial flight on June 16, 1969 while flying in support of ground forces engaged with the enemy near the Landing Zone Center. The heavy volumes of suppressive fire he supplied enabled the ground units to maneuver more effectively but during the third pass his helicopter suffered severe damage and was forced to make an emergency landing. As it descended, with complete disregard for his own personal safety, Ski exposed himself to the hostile barrage as he maneuvered outside the aircraft to jettison a flaming rocket pod. His quick thinking enabled them to crash land without making a smoking hole in the ground. Once the helicopter landed, he helped to establish a defensive perimeter. Wiklanski passed away on August 20, 2022 at the age of 73. The story of his heroism was read by Capt. Rich Stratton of the town’s Veterans Event Committee who is also a Vietnam veteran.

The second story of heroism shared during the ceremony was that of Elwood Richardson, a WWII U.S. Army veteran. The story was written by his grandson, Michael Richardson, and read by Michelle Reid, also a member of the Veterans Event Committee. Many members of Richardson’s family were honored guests at the ceremony and were presented with commemorative pins by town officials and Sen. Bruce Tarr.

Elwood Richardson was just 20 years old when he entered WWII on September 26, 1942, leaving Boston for Cherbourg, France on September 14, 1944. Michael wrote: “His first battle was the Battle of the Ziegfeld Line, which was on the border of France and Germany, opposite the Maginot Line… it ran for about 200 miles… and was designed and built as a fortification to prevent frontal assault. The Germans invaded France in 1940 and flanked (bombed) the Maginot Line. My grandfather was there for three months shooting at the Germans in cement pillboxes, with a 240 mm cannon. My grandfather was a tank commander. He was in charge of four other men who were in his tank. The tanks were given orders to travel in front of the infantrymen to try to protect the soldiers. My grandfather made all of his crew learn how to work all five positions in the tank so that if someone were to get wounded or killed, the other men could fill in the position.”

Michael’s story about his grandfather’s war experience explained how he had lost two tanks by enemy fire, in one such incident, 88 cannon shells with tracers had been shot through the tank and these shells had cut each of the four other men in their tank in half. His grandfather was the only one to survive that attack and he had to “pull the other men from their positions in order to drive away from the first attack.”

The second tank was lost when the Allied Powers broke through the Ziegfeld Line and drove over a minefield, blowing off one of the tank treads. In another major battle in the Hurtgen Forest in Germany, Elwood Richardson and his tank mates had to “prevent Germans from entering the tanks by throwing grenades and using machine guns. My grandfather was awarded the Purple Heart as he was shot through his left calf by a German sniper during battle. He was also wounded in the buttocks by shrapnel from a mortar shell while in his tank. His Battalion, the 778 Tank Battalion, was the third wave to arrive ashore and the first tank wave to survive the war. They started in Europe with 155 enlisted men in his unit. They had 302 replacements during the war due to wounded soldiers or soldiers killed in action. I am very proud of my Grandfather and what he did for our country during World War II. He was, and still is, a hero.”

Just eight years later, the Richardson family would lose a family member during another war, the Korean War. Robert R. Richardson, a private in the U.S. Army, was killed in action on July 3, 1951. He is among the 51 known Purple Heart recipients from North Reading. During the ceremony, his younger sister, Lillian Martin, was presented with the Massachusetts Medal of Liberty by state Senator Bruce Tarr in honor of his ultimate sacrifice. Also representing the family were Helen Pelley, Linda Rindone, Cheryl Brunetta and James Richardson.

Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto, Select Board Chair Kate Manupelli, Select Board member Liane Gonzalez and Richard Stratton also presented the family members with Purple Heart pins.

Veterans Director Susan Magner served as the Master of Ceremonies. She and the Veterans Event Committee undertook the task of becoming a Purple Heart Community after it was brought to her attention by Select Board member Liane Gonzalez after State Rep. Brad Jones had inquired about having the town state the necessary steps to properly honor its Purple Heart recipients.

“Each year on the 11th day of the 11th month at the 11th hour, we gather in honor of the men and women who have chosen the path  to defend our borders. This is day is historic and a time to honor our valorous Americans who served with sacrifice, courage, and commitment throughout generations.  It’s a day to honor and keep in prayer those who are currently serving today,” Magner told the crowd.

“Today throughout the United States, in every city and town, we take time to honor our brave men and women who served on foreign lands. Many return with visible wounds but many return with invisible wounds; many have great difficulties adjusting back to civilian life.  Our valorous veterans sacrificed so much for our liberties: our right to speech, our right to religion, our right to vote, our right to fair trial, and our right to freedom of the press. They should never be taken for granted.”   

“Today we hold special honors to our Purple Heart veterans and their families. The Purple Heart is the oldest military award awarded to our brave men and women who, on the battlefield, were wounded or killed in action.  Today, North Reading officially becomes a Purple Heart town who honors the sacrifices and ultimate sacrifices of our brave men and women.  Lastly, I ask each and every one of you to take the time not only today but every day to look into the eyes of a hero, shake their hand and thank them for their service,” Magner concluded.

Firefighter and veteran honored

Special recognition during Friday’s ceremony was also given to North Reading firefighter and paramedic Jon Burt for the quick action he took to save the life of a choking victim last April. Burt, who is a Marine Corps veteran of the Persian Gulf War, was dining at the Longhorn Steakhouse in Reading when he observed a patron choking. He successfully dislodged the obstruction from the victim’s airway prior to the arrival of Reading’s first responders.

Arthur Cole, who serves as the Commander of the North Reading VFW Post 10874 and who is a retired Wakefield firefighter, presented Burt with a citation and medal from the VFW for his heroism.

During the ceremony, Town Administrator Michael Gilleberto also recognized the current town employees who are veterans of the country’s armed services. In addition to Burt, they are as follows: Fire Department personnel Capt. Eric Pepper, FF Sean O’Brien and Call FF Michael Ricci; Parks and Recreation employee Rich Giordano; Police Department personnel Lt. Mark Zimmerman, Sgt. Derek Howe, Sgt. Paul Dorsey, Sgt. Sean O’Leary, Officer Michael Hennessey, Officer Ryan Haggerty, Officer Jonathan Romeo and Veterans’ Services Director Susan Magner.

During the ceremony, the Invocation and Benediction were delivered by Rev. Rachel Fisher, pastor of the Aldersgate United Methodist Church; the presentation of the nation’s colors was performed by the North Reading Police Honor Guard followed by the Pledge of Allegiance led by the North Reading Boy and Girl Scout units. The North Reading High School Marching Band performed the National Anthem as well as “Military Escort,”  “American March Classics”  and “God Bless America,” under the direction of Drum Major Angelina Palazzolo and Assistant Drum Major Isabelle Kim.

Governor Baker’s Veterans’ Day proclamation was read by Mark Yankopoulos, the Deputy General Counsel of the Department of Veterans Services, and the town’s Veterans’ Day proclamation was read by Select Board member Liane Gonzalez. The Purple Heart Proclamation was read by Dan Mahoney, a member of the Veterans Events Committee

Purple Heart Roll Call

The Roll Call of North Reading’s 51 known Purple Heart recipients was read by North Reading VFW Post 10874 Commander Arthur Cole, Richard Stratton and Dan Mahoney. The town’s Purple Heart recipients are as follows:

Bayard Aims Jr. – Army – Korea; Davis Alexander Army WWII; Andrew Amendola – Army – Afganistan; James Arsenault – Army POW – WWII; Gary Atkinson – Army – Vietnam; Michael Bartlett – Army – Iraq; Robert Berglund – Army – WWII; Carl J. Bertolino – Army – Vietnam; Anthony Branchini – Army – WWII; Daniel D. Callahan – Army – KIA Vietnam.

Also, Richard J. Campbell – Army – WWII; Walter Carpenter – Army – WWII; Orlando Catone – Army Air Corps – WWII; Ralph J. Cidlevicz – Navy WWII; Jimmie M. Couto – Marine Corps – KIA Vietnam; Charles R. Cutcliffe – Army – WWII; Allisandro DiFulvio – Army – WWII; Alfred Duggan – Army – WWII; Frank W. Elliott – Army – Vietnam; Thomas F. Flynn – Army – WWII; Nicholas Fortin – Marine Corps – Global War on Terror; George Gaw – Army – WWII; Charles Gill – Marine Corps – Vietnam; John Graupner – Army – Vietnam; and Gerald “Jay” Gurry – Army – Vietnam; 2 Purple Hearts.

As well as, Lloyd Hay – Army – WWII; John Homer – Army – WWII; John Knight Jr. – Army – WWII; Robert F. Mahan – navy – WWII; Shawn MacPherson – Army – Global War on Terror; John H. McDonough – Army – WWII; Sidney McIntire – Army – WWII; Maxwell McKinnon – Army – WWII; Eugene R. Moreau – Army – KIA Vietnam; Edward Miller – Army – WWII; William Moss – Army – Global War on Terror and Elmer Ober – Army – WWII.

And, Paul Perreault – Army – WWII; Elwood Richardson Jr. – Army – WWII; Robert R. Richardson – Army – Korea; Neal Rooney – Army – Vietnam; 2 Purple Hearts; Daniel J. Scott Jr. – Army – WWII; Bernard Scott – Army – WWII; John F. Smallwood – Army – WWII; John Steber – Army – WWII; Edward Swauger – Army – Vietnam; Robert Swenson – Marine Corps – Vietnam; Robert E. Turner – Army – WWII; Raymond Veader – Army – Vietnam; Charles J. Warren – Army – WWII; and John Wiklanski – Army – Vietnam; 2 Purple Hearts.

The Firing of volleys by the North Reading Minit and Militia was followed by placing the wreaths at the town’s war memorials, and a moment of silence. Taps was played by buglers Shane Hanson and Ivan Deiko of the NRHS Marching Band. Two soldiers from the Massachusetts National Guard Unit HHC 151 provided static display of military vehicle, and members of the Patriot Guard Riders stood at attention holding  a row of American Flags throughout the ceremony.

Closing remarks

“Before we close our ceremonies I ask you to take time and reflect upon our men and women and what they endure day-to-day to protect us all. Many won’t be home for the holidays, many are struggling with invisible wounds of war, many are struggling with addictions and homelessness. Please remember them in your thoughts and prayers,” Magner said.