Today is the 52nd anniversary of the death of PFC Kermit H. LaBelle Jr., who was killed in Vietnam just 41 days before he was due to end his military tour there.
His name and the names of five other honorees have been added to the wall at the Trooper Gabe Rich and Trooper Scott Johnson Memorial Park in North Pole.
The newly added fallen heroes are Battalion Chief Philip E. Rounds, of the UAF Fire Department; Pfc. Gilbert Ketzler Jr., U.S. Army; Staff Sgt. Steven J. Wengelewski Jr., U.S. Army; Sgt. 1st Class Johnathan B. McCain, U.S. Army; Chief Warrant Officer Wayne E. Jones, U.S. Army, and Pfc. Kermit H. LaBelle Jr., U.S. Army.
A large crowd gathered Saturday for the Third annual Fallen Heroes Ceremony. This is a tribute to residents of the Fairbanks North Star Borough who have given their lives while performing official duties serving their country, state or communities.
“It’s really an appropriate time,” said LaBelle’s older brother James LaBelle, who remembers getting leave from the U.S. Navy in 1967 to serve as honor guard, accompanying his brother’s body back to Fairbanks. Anti-war protesters hollered at him at stops along the journey. Luckily, he said, he was too numb to pay much attention. He and his wife attended the local ceremony and also visited his brother’s gravestone at Birch Hill Cemetery.
Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy greeted the gathering and praised the two Alaska State Troopers, killed in the line of duty, for whom the memorial is named.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward declared July 27 Fallen Heroes Day, in a proclamation he signed along with Fairbanks city Mayor Jim Matherly and North Pole Mayor Michael Welch.
“This day provides an opportunity for all citizens of the Fairbanks North Star Borough to take time to show respect and appreciation for the brave men and women who risked their lives each day when they report to work,” the proclamation states.
Each new honoree was named and brief biography given. One or two family members then approached the wall to quietly and respectfully leave a white rose. Some offered salutes.
Each plaque displays the honoree’s name, date of death (known as End of Watch) and also includes a QR code. A smartphone held up to that code can download the biography of the honoree.
North Pole Mayor Michael Welch encouraged audience members to turn their focus to that little dash between date of birth and date of death.
“That represents their entire life,” he said. “Happiness, sorrow, success and accomplishments.”
Welch had a surprise for families whose loved ones died in Vietnam — a rubbing of the fallen hero’s name from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall. Wayne A. Jones has worked as a volunteer at the memorial In Washington, D.C. He made rubbings of soldiers’ names who were from the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Mayor Welch is now working to locate the families.
Jones’ father was one of the honorees on Sunday and although he is out of state, he was delighted that some of his Alaska family members were able to attend.
“It’s nice to know that somebody still cares., he said.
That sentiment was echoed by family members of other honorees.
When Chief Warrant Officer Wayne E. Jones’ name was announced, his older brother Edwin Jones, 90, of Fairbanks walked to the wall, laid down a rose and whispered, “I’ll see you soon.”
A 21-gun salute followed.
Reach columnist/community editor Kris Capps at firstname.lastname@example.org. Call her at the office 459-7546. Follow her on Twitter :@FDNMKris.