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In Santa Rosa, pre-Veterans Day luncheon draws large crowd

Elsie Allen High School’s highly charged marching band on Wednesday amped up a pre-Veterans Day luncheon that beamed gratitude to all who donned a uniform in service to the country.

More than 600 people filled the Santa Rosa Veterans Memorial Building for the 16th annual tribute to veterans by local Rotary and Kiwanis club.

The vets’ building was festooned in red, white and blue for the gathering, and a wall-sized American flag covered the entire space behind the stage.

Many military veterans attended as guests of Rotary and Kiwanis members. Thanks was heaped on all the vets, but one was invited to stand and be recognized.

The crowd gave a standing ovation to Don Clouston of Santa Rosa, who’d fibbed about his age and was just 17 when he parachuted into the invasion of Normandy in 1944 during World War II. Clouston came wearing his Army 101st Airborne Division uniform.

Keynote speaker Paul Flynn, since earlier this year the commanding officer of the Coast Guard training station in Two Rock, west of Petaluma, told those present, “What could I possibly say that would even partially convey my respect for our country’s veterans?”

Capt. Flynn chose as an example of the service and sacrifice of the nation’s veterans the late merchant mariner and Coast Guardsman Bernard “Bernie” Webber. Flynn recounted Webber’s real-life leading role in the historic ocean rescue that inspired this year’s film, “The Finest Hour.”

Flynn said it was Webber who gathered a small Coast Guard rescue crew to launch from Cape Cod when, in the winter of 1952, two aged tanker ships, the SS Pendleton and SS Fort Mercer, split apart amid a violent nor’easter.

Under Webber’s command, the rescue crew pulled aboard 32 crewmen from one of the doomed tankers; it was the greatest small-boat rescue in history. Flynn said that a bit more than a decade later, Webber could have retired from the Coast Guard, but instead he accompanied the cutter crew under his command to wartime Vietnam, where they mounted an armed patrol along the coast.

Flynn said every former sailor, airman, soldier, marine and Coast Guardsman present at the luncheon had stories to tell and service to be proud of.

“You have earned that hollowed title, veteran,” he said.

In the program’s benediction, Navy Lt. Timothy Seo prayed that God look over all who currently stand in the country’s defense.

He added, “We ask that you give our nation’s leaders wisdom.”

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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