Young T.J. Litsey, grandson of Judge Gary J. Ortego, is pictured here as he hands an American Flag to Vietnam War Veteran Mark Doucet before the ceremony began Monday on Memorial Day at the Evangeline Parish Courthouse. Others pictured in the background from left to right are: middle- Veterans Donald Jones, Kermit Miller, and Charles Crosby; back- Josh Fontenot and Vietnam Veteran Gary “Tiny” Fontenot. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
Honoring the ultimate sacrifice
As the fighting began to rage during the American Civil War, Confederate women started to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers in Virginia and Georgia. As the war progressed, the practice spread to other battlefields across the South.
Following the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863, women from the North began to also decorate the graves in the southern Pennsylvania field as had become custom across the Potomac River. Three years after the war had ended, this led to what was called Decoration Day where graves of Union dead were decorated across the country.
These two observances merged together by the 20th Century and then became known as Memorial Day. The day became a federal holiday in 1967 and was moved to the last Monday in May by an act of Congress on June 28, 1968.
Over the century and a half after the day was originally observed, communities across the country gather together to pay tribute to those veterans who paid the ultimate sacrifice. The local observance here in Evangeline Parish takes place every year outside the courthouse in Ville Platte.
“This day encourages Americans to reflect on their sacrifice,” said J.D. Soileau of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 630 as he delivered his opening remarks Monday morning. “Upon this Memorial Day, we gather thankful that God has given us the gift of memory that we might keep alive those we love.”
Retired general Deacon Ben Soileau remarked, “Today, especially, we honor those veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country and for their families. Their families remain, and it’s still difficult for them. Let us keep all of them in our prayers.”
Elected officials were also on hand in honor of the day’s observances. Judge Gary Ortego brought his grandson T.J. Litsey to hand out small American flags. Judge Ortego said that this was done to show his grandson the importance of keeping alive the traditions of Memorial Day.
Ville Platte Mayor Jennifer Vidrine expressed her thanks to the family and friends of those who made the ultimate sacrifice. “Every time I think about it, and every time we all think about it, we should remember that freedom was not free because they paid for it with their lives,” she said.”
“It’s an honor and a privilege to remember the people who gave the ultimate sacrifice for us,” said State Representative Bernard LeBas. “What we have is precious, and it was something that was paid for very dearly by a lot of our loved ones.”
Evangeline Parish Clerk of Court Randy Deshotel read the list of names of those from the parish who did not come home that is engraved on the monument outside the courthouse. One veteran who did make it home and who was in attendance for the day’s observance was 95-year-old World War II Navy veteran Alvin Soileau of Ville Platte.
“To me, sometimes I think it’s just another regular day,” Soileau said about Memorial Day. “But, then, I think about all my good friends that I lost in the service. I think about them a lot.”
Soileau enlisted in the Navy at the outset of World War II because he did not want to get drafted by the Army. “My problem was I didn’t want to have to sleep in a foxhole,” he said.
During his three years with the Navy, Soileau served as an aviation ordinanceman throughout the Solomon Islands. He said, “Our outfit was just like what would have been on a carrier. We’d work under the airplanes to load those bombs.”
Soileau’s time in the Navy brought him to Guadalcanal in 1943, which was the site of some of the fiercest fighting in the Pacific Theater. “When we got there, the front beach head had already been cleared, but their was still fighting in the back,” he stated. “We couldn’t see the fighting, but we could hear the booms of the guns and the bombs.”
While on Guadalcanal, Soileau had to do the one thing that had made him to decide to enlist in the Navy instead of the Army. He and the rest of his unit had to sleep in foxholes. “A foxhole was the first thing that we did once we got on one of those islands,” he said. “We had a little shovel that we packed on our back and dug the hole. If there were five in a tent, those five men would get together and dig a hole. That was the first thing. We wouldn’t even set our tent until we’d dig the foxhole.”
“On those islands, all of the beaches were coconut groves,” he continued. “They had been torn up with all the guns and stuff. We’d take those coconut trees after we had dug our hole and set those logs up in the hole so we could be comfortable. The Navy would furnish us some sandbags, and we’d fill those sand bags and stack them on top of those trees and around the hole. When we were inside a foxhole, we were in pretty good shape, if we could stand living with the mosquitoes and the rest of the stuff in there.”
After leaving Guadalcanal, Soileau and his unit went to the island of Munda. “It was a little island in the middle of the ocean,” he said. “I don’t remember seeing a lump of dirt on the island because it was all rocks, but it was clear enough where we could make a landing. It wasn’t too bad because we didn’t have to use a foxhole too often, but, every once in a while, the Japanese would come and bomb us.”
Upon leaving Munda, Soileau’s company was sent to Bougainsville. “That was a tough one,” he expressed. “We were right there after the Marines and Army took over. There we had to sleep in the foxholes every night.”
While in the Navy, Soileau earned two combat stars for the time spent on Guadalcanal and Bougainsville. He recounted a combat incident that occurred around noon on June 19, 1945.
Soileau said, “That one particular day, me and two or three others got back from the airfields and went to the camp. We were in the foxhole and could hear the booming and the banging. After a while, they gave us the all clear signal. We got out of the foxhole, and our tent was pretty well beat up.”
“I had an old locker in the tent that I had made myself,” he continued. “I opened up my blue jeans that were in the locker, and they were just like a screen (from all of the gunfire).”
As he looks back on his time in the Navy during World War II, Soileau recalls the veterans who became a family to him. “That’s the way I feel about it,” he said. “A lot of people went through as bad or worse than what I did, but I thought I did my fair share. I stayed three-plus years in the Navy, but I don’t regret one day that I went in the Navy because somebody had to do what we did.”