BY ETHAN FORMAN
---- — To the roar of Patriot Guard Riders’ motorcycles, the flashing of police cruiser lights, and the applause of dozens of veterans and well-wishers, a convoy of nine Wreaths Across America tractor-trailers rolled through the gates of the Topsfield Fairgrounds yesterday for a brief stop on the way to Arlington National Cemetery.
As they did so, they passed under an enormous American flag strung between the Topsfield and Middleton ladder trucks.
Those in the caravan included a bus filled with Gold Star and Blue Star families representing those whose sons and daughters have been killed in the service of their country or who are still serving in the military. Then, they all marched to Coolidge Hall on the fairgrounds for a meal and a ceremony. After a little more than an hour, the convoy headed out on the road to its next stop in Auburn, on its way south to Virginia.
The nonprofit veterans recognition organization plans to place 413,000 Christmas wreaths at veterans’ graves nationwide. Volunteers will place approximately 100,000 at graves at Arlington National Cemetery, and the rest will go to 800 sites throughout the country on Saturday, National Wreaths Across America Day.
In Topsfield, the group presented wreaths to seven communities and their local veterans organization; to the Statehouse’s Memorial Hall; and to Joanne Patton of Hamilton, the widow of Maj. Gen. George Patton.
It’s all part of a growing tradition that started quietly in 1992 when Morrill Worcester, owner of a wreath company in Harrington, Maine, had an excess of 5,000 wreaths he wanted to place at graves in Arlington National Cemetery. He had first visited the cemetery as a 12-year-old boy and never forgot the sight. Worcester got permission to lay the wreaths and got volunteers to place them, his wife, Karen, told a packed Coolidge Hall.
“They placed those wreaths, and he said, ‘We are never going to not do this,” Karen Worcester said.
The Worcesters carried on this tradition until 2005, when a Pentagon photographer’s shot of wreaths and their red bows in the snow on top of veterans’ graves went viral on the Internet. People from all over the country stepped up.
“It’s not about the Worcester family anymore,” Karen Worcester said. Instead, Worcester said the effort is about recognizing and learning the stories of the 400,000 people who gave their lives for this country.
Officials on hand to applaud the convoy and accept a large wreath for the Statehouse were state Sen. Bruce Tarr of Gloucester, Rep. Ted Speliotis of Danvers, Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich and Rep. Jerry Parisella of Beverly.
“I think it’s important to remember the sacrifices made by veterans,” said Parisella, an active member of the Army Reserve who served a year in Iraq in his first year in office.
“To be able to thank the Worcester family for all they have done is fantastic,” Hill said.
“It’s one of the most important holiday traditions I can think of, and it’s growing stronger,” Tarr said.
Many who turned out were veterans like Peter Bogdan of Saugus, a member of the Peabody Veterans Council, who stood and watched, holding several flags to his shoulder.
“When I first heard about it,” Bogdan said, “I thought it was amazing that people still did things like that and they did it on a volunteer aspect.”
The Peabody Veterans Council sponsors a series of wreaths every year.
“We hope we can continue to do it,” said Bogdan, who said he served in the Army from 1948 to 1990.
Vietnam veteran Don Fields of Buxton, Maine, is a member of the Patriot Guard Riders driving his pickup from Maine to Virginia for the first time this year.
He has ridden with the veterans parade in the past, but never all the way to Arlington National Cemetery.
“For me, it’s the respect for the military and what they go through and how they serve for us,” Fields said.
Veterans and officials from Boxford, Hamilton, Ipswich, Middleton, Rowley, Topsfield and Wenham accepted wreaths to be placed at various war memorials and veterans graves in each community.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @DanverSalemNews.