Once upon a time, the Veterans of Foreign Wars home was on Church Street, where now the Norwich Savings Society has a big parking lot. Through the years, few groups have been more inspiring to this old town than have our veterans groups. Norwich has always been one of the first communities to respond and in every war, from the American Revolution to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, we have contributed our best young men and women.
The veterans groups, and there are many locally, have always remembered and they have been the conscience of Norwich. Today, the VFW home is, and has been for more than 20 years, on Central Avenue.
Monday is Veterans Day, and as I thought back on other Veterans Days and Loyalty Days that the local VFW and American Legion celebrated, I thought it might be time to remember those who have been so diligent in remembering the cost of freedom.
Today I will speak of members, past and present, of the VFW, but I want my comrades in the American Legion to know that we will visit them one day soon, for they have been truly as active and deserving as any veterans group.
Thinking of this year’s Veterans Day parade, I thought of another parade, years ago, that should have been canceled but wasn’t. It was Loyalty Day in Connecticut and each year, the big Loyalty Day parade was held in a different town.
In 1967, and Ray Lord (of the VFW) had approached me (as state senator) and suggested that we get the West Point marching band. On the face of it, it sounded like a dream. The West Point marching band had not marched in Norwich since our 250th anniversary in 1911 and then they only marched because the president of the United States had come to Norwich to help us celebrate. That was President William Howard Taft, a friend of Winslow Williams, who virtually owned Yantic, and counted the president as a personal friend.
Known to Veterans
You had to know Ray Lord to know how persistent he could be. A former boxer, he ran an Irish tavern on Water Street for years and was known by everyone, but especially by the veterans of Norwich.
Abraham Ribicoff was in the U.S. Senate and a personal friend, so I asked for his help. And it came to pass that the West Point band marched in Norwich.
John Dempsey was governor and as he arrived at Chelsea Parade, the weather was threatening. It had rained all night, but there was a break in the clouds. The governor greeted all of us as he took off his raincoat and handed it to a state policeman. He said, “Let’s all take our coats off and demonstrate our loyalty, rain or shine.”
Among those there that morning were Al Gaffney, Tom Sweeny, Bill O’Neill, who would later be governor, and myself. Vinnie Laudone was the parade marshal, and the march was from Chelsea Parade to the VFW home in Greenville. It was a long parade route. As we marched down Broadway, everything was fine until we got to St. Patrick’s Cathedral and the skies opened up. It was a virtual typhoon. All of us, without raincoats, were then made to realize that rank does indded have its privileges.
The governor himself had encouraged us all to shed our coats. “We’ll march rain or shine to express our loyalty.” He was approached by a state policeman carrying a bright yellow raincoat, cap and boots, and so the governor marched on while the rest of us made our sacrifice to the loyalty theme.
With the West Point band, we marched through downtown Norwich, up North Main Street and Central Avenue to the VFW. Ray Lord was the happiest man in town. Ray was soaked to the skin himself and no one was more drenched in that rain unless it was the West Point marching band.
Detail Left Out
Speaking at the VFW, the governor in his inimitable style, told how we all had demonstrated our loyalty by marching three miles in a driving rain. Governor Dempsey neglected to tell the crowd he had a raincoat, cap and boots, but he did lead us into combat with the elements.
Gov. Bill O’Neill told this story hundreds of times throughout the state. Marching in the rain, without a raincoat, and seeing Governor Dempsey, protected from the elements, may have inspired a young Bill O’Neill to seek that sort of privilege in the future.
Ray Lord symbolized everything that the VFW stands for. At the risk of leaving someone out, let me mention some other VFW members I have personally known and respected for their contribution to their country, their state, and this community: Bill Rizzuto, Tom Sabatino, Gordon Reed, Lou Born, and Nelson Wood.
There were many others, but let’s recall one other member of the VFW, Leo Jacques.
Leo fought in World War I and he was Navy. For years, Leo lived at the Norwich Armory and was the caretaker. During those years, and especially after World War II, Leo Jacques, more than any other man I know, helped the veterans, their widows and their children get all the benefits to which they were entitled.
When I was in the Senate, no one contacted me more regarding veterans’ matters than Leo Jacques and never for himself. It was always for others. He fought for widows’ pensions and to get qualified former service members into the VA hospitals. He also saw to it that those who never returned from the wars received all of the benefits they were due through their children.
Leo Jacques was a very special man. He was a real veteran, a true American, and one of the most giving, most thoughtful and hardest working members the VFW has ever had. Even today, the VFW proudly honors the memory of Leo Jacques.
Price of Freedom
Down through the years the VFW, the Polish Legion of American Vets, the Vietnam Vets, the Jewish-American Veterans and the Taftville American Legion and Taftville VFW have reminded us of the price of freedom.
Each of our parades, be it the Loyalty Day, the Fourth of July, Rose Arts, or Veterans Day, have stepped off with parade marshals who symbolized the best Norwich had to offer.
Col. Ed McKay, who fought in World War I, was parade marshal until after World War II. Attorney McKay served his community and church in so many ways. During World War II and the Korean conflict, Ed McKay was chairman of the local draft board, which was made up of himself, Elmer Farnha and Amelia Gromko. He was also New London County coroner for years.
After World War II, Capt. Vincent (Vinnie) Laudone replaced him as parade marshal. Capt. Laudone had fought in World War II serving with the famed 7th Army. His action was in France and Germany.
Today’s parade marsal is Capt. John Cotter, a veteran of Vietnam, where he served in military intelligence and received a Bronze Star for heroism in combat.
Once upon a time, the American Legion headquarters was in the old Masonic temple across from City Hall, and the VFW home was on Church Street.
The veterans of Norwich, then and now, represent our most admired and appreciated citizens. They in turn have always recognized their comrades from all wars, and they now salute the newest veterans who have just returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. There is little doubt these young veterans will probably be the next generation of leaders and parade marshals as the veterans, unlike old generals, never fade away.