American Legion Frontenac (Kan.) Post 43 used the stories of two American war heroes to commemorate Memorial Day during two weekend events that drew hundreds of veterans and civilians.
Chester Nez, the only surviving member of the original 29 Navajo Code Talkers, appeared at both events in Pittsburg, Kan. Accompanying Nez were his grandson, Latham, and Judith Avila, the co-author of his book, "Code Talker."
"I am very proud to have had the chance to serve our country," Nez, 93, told the crowd gathered at Pittsburg High School during the first day of the weekend's events. "I would also like to thank all the veterans who are out there."
During both events, Avila gave a presentation about Nez and the 28 other original Navajo Code Talkers who developed a secret code that helped the United States win the war in the Pacific. In 2001, Nez and the other four living Code Talkers met President George W. Bush and received the Congressional Gold Medals for their service. While each of the Code Talkers shook the president's hand, Nez also saluted Bush. "He was the commander in chief, and that's what you do," Nez said.
The Frontenac post has worked for two years with Avila and the Nez family to plan the appearance, said Post 43 Commander Don Morey. The Pritchett Trust helped fund the event.
"It's a very satisfying, rewarding thing (to have Chester Nez) here," Morey said. "I'm very happy that we were able to do this. There is so much interest in the community for this story. World War II was 70 years ago and a lot of people have no idea of what went on. This was an opportunity to do that. To see Mr. Nez here is a very unique opportunity."
At the Memorial Day service, Rev. Adam Keiter talked about another hero — Medal of Honor recipient Emil Kapaun, a Kansas native.
Kapaun was a Roman Catholic priest and Army chaplain who was captured during the Korean War. He put others' needs before his, even in captivity, tending to the other POWs, risking his life to steal food for them and handling chores — like cleaning the latrines — that no one wanted to do.
"Father Kapaun serves as a great reminder of the American ideal that we should pursue in our own way: selfless service to another," Keiter said.
Post 43 has a history of honoring veterans in its community. In fact, it helped realize the vision of retired Army Brig. Gen. James AuBuchon, who created and developed the Veterans Memorial Amphitheatre, located on the Pittsburg State University campus. "The Frontenac Legion led the way in terms of all the Legion and VFW posts in the area on terms of making a donation to the project," he said.
The $1.3 million memorial features a half-scale version of the Vietnam Memorial Wall, reflecting pool, 250-seat amphitheater and Walk of Honor plaza with more than 2,600 engraved memorial pavers. At the Memorial Day event, Morey announced the post added two pavers to the memorial, honoring Nez and Kapaun.
In addition to veterans, the nearby ROTC, other adults and university students regularly visit the amphitheater to pause and reflect.
That was AuBuchon's goal for the project, which he oversaw when he was vice president for university development at Pittsburg State. "The memorial is exactly what I had in mind from the beginning," said AuBuchon, a member of Legion Post 64. "At the front, life goes on. The noise from the street traffic; the train that goes by periodically. Then you go into the memorial, which is dug low, to a place that is solemn, serene, reflective and more quiet. It's the place to be. That was the intent of the design of the project, and I think we have achieved that."
The amphitheater was supposed to be the site of the Memorial Day ceremony until a torrential downpour forced the commemoration ceremony inside.
"I don't mind the rain because it's all the tears from our fallen soldiers," said Michael Chapman, who attended the event.
Editor's note: This was the last interview given by Chester Nez. Mr. Nez died May 26, 10 days after this interview.