This year was no different. Fortunately, there were no casualties in the line of duty in the last year to memorialize — in the last two to be exact.
So, with a backdrop of colorful nautical flags aboard the Coast Guard ships in port at Escanaba Park, Friday's event honored those who sacrificed their lives in the service of their country, fulfilling the guard’s “Semper Paratus” (“Always Ready”) motto.
“The National Memorial Service represents the heart of what we do,” said Coast Guard Festival Executive Director Mike Smith. “The Coast Guard Festival's mission is to honor and respect the men and women of the U.S. Coast Guard. It becomes even more meaningful when we remember the lives of the men who lost their lives on the Escanaba.”
The Grand Haven-based Escanaba sank on June 13, 1943, killing all men onboard except two.
Fittingly, the annual memorial service is held along Grand Haven’s waterfront at Escanaba Park, renamed from John Kelly Park after the ship's sinking.
“It's steeped in tradition,” Smith said. “Luckily this year, we had no operational deaths, but in a special way we're honoring the descendants of our aviation heroes and descendants of the only Coast Guard Medal of Honor winner, Douglas Monroe.”
Descendants of Coast Guard aviation pioneers Capt. Frank Erickson and Cmdr. Elmer Stone were honored at Friday's ceremony.
For the first time — following the traditional playing of “Taps,” the wreath placement and flower laying — three Coast Guard helicopters, including one from Canada, performed a flyover to honor 100 years of aviation history. Many in attendance shielded their eyes from the sun, gazed upward, and waved as the majestic flying machines soared overhead.
Jane Ruiter of Ferrysburg said she's attended every memorial service for the past 12 years.
“It's really special,” she said. “There's a lot of meaning to it. It's humbling, really.”
Her husband, Ferrysburg Mayor Dan Ruiter, said it's an honor for Grand Haven to be the only place in the nation that hosts such a memorial service, even though there are 22 cities in the country that call themselves a “Coast Guard City.”
“It's just heart-touching,” Ruiter said.