World War II veterans share reflections on sacrifice, service, and the ongoing need for a strong military force
PASO ROBLES — Last Saturday, the community gathered at the Paso Robles District Cemetery to acknowledge and give thanks to our local veterans. This Veterans Day on Saturday, Nov. 11, the Paso Robles District Cemetery welcomed back its Veterans Day Ceremony. Each year, the cemetery creates the Avenue of Flags throughout the grounds to pay tribute to our veterans. Additionally, the flags are accompanied by a ceremony conducted at 11 a.m. sharp, with notable speakers, bands, and a flyover by the Warbirds Museum.
It was on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month — 104 years ago — World War I ended with an armistice signing between the Allies and Germany. Twenty years later, on May 13, 1938, that Nov. 11 was anointed as Armistice Day and proclaimed as “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace.”
Master of Ceremonies and VFW Post Commander VFW10965 Salvador Cota welcomed the public to the service, which included an invocation by American Legion Post 50 Chaplain John Erwin and keynote speaker Robert Hager.
“Veteran’s Day isn’t merely about acknowledging our own service or expressing gratitude,” said Cota. “It’s about making Veterans Day a touchstone for understanding, education, and appreciation for all Americans. I believe that it is our job as veterans to help ensure that the true significance of this day isn’t lost in the noise of department store sales or everyday life.”
The Paso Robles District Cemetery is home to 1,200 VA (Veteran Affairs) issued headstones. But that number is increased to over 2,000 when counting privately issued veteran headstones. Some veterans from the Spanish-American War are buried in the Pioneer section of the cemetery.
During his welcome address, Cota said, “Every American, no matter where they live or what they do, reaps the benefit of the service and sacrifice of those who believe in something greater than themselves, and while the debt we owe them can never be repaid, commemorating Veteran’s Day is a start. It is a shared responsibility and an effort which ties all Americans, veteran and nonveteran alike, together.”
Patriotic music was provided by the Cuesta Concord Chorus with a well-timed flyover from the Estrella Warbirds. The local Scouts of America led the attendees in the Pledge of Allegiance. Volunteers from the VFW, Boy Scouts, Moose Lions Club, and others help put flags on every veteran’s grave in the cemetery.
World War II veteran Hager proudly let the crowd know that he is 97 years old.
“I come from a long, long line of citizen soldiers. I have had ancestors in every war from the Revolutionary War to World War II, with one exception: my family missed the Spanish-American War,” Hager began his speech.
Starting with an ancestor in the Hessian army who turned to fight for the Americans, Hager continued his family military legacy in the Navy and was eventually discharged as an Army sergeant after being based in the Midway Islands. He then asked all veterans in attendance to stand and thanked them for their service.
“Are we ever going to be in another war? Yes. All wars are inevitable. This world is not a peaceful world. It will never remain a peaceful world, and wars are expensive,” said Hager, addressing the crowd. “Wars are expensive in money, but also in blood, tears, and body bags, and we need to always keep a strong military force.”
Eleven-year-old Liam McGee helped with the Veteran’s Day ceremonies as part of Boy Scout Troop 60.
In Scouts since he was 5 years old, Liam says he plans to help with the ceremonies every year.
“It meant a lot [to me] to celebrate all the veterans who fought in all the worlds and to show respect to them because they definitely deserve it,” he said.
Another World War II veteran in attendance on Saturday was Gordon Bastien. At nearly 98 and a Paso Robles resident, made his first attempt in joining the Marine Corps at about 15 years old. At the end of his nearly two-decade-long military career, Bastien served in the Army, Navy, Reserves, and active duty, including the Korean War. During his post-service, Bastien pursued his passion for flying, obtaining a pilot’s license and contributing to military efforts through a San Jose-based company and as a crop duster.
When asked why he was determined to join the military at such a young age, Bastien reflected, “We were at war. We were different kids. We were taught about our country, and we believed in it.”
Feature Image: Veterans stand in salute during patriotic songs at the Nov. 11 Veterans Day Ceremony at Paso Robles District Cemetery. Photo by Camille DeVaul