American Legion honors veterans at Bellingham City Hall

At the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month, veterans, their families and fellow citizens gathered at Bellingham City Hall to honor those who had fought for their freedom.

Hundreds crowded into the standing-room-only lobby just inside the hall’s doors to listen to Tuesday’s ceremony, which started at 11 a.m. in honor of the armistice called between the allied forces and Germany at the same time in 1918.

Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, whose father served in World War II, gave a brief opening speech, thanking the veterans for protecting their country.

Throughout the ceremony, the Bellingham High School Alumni Band played patriotic tunes from a walkway above the crowd. Partway through the event, soloist Sonia Alexis led the crowd in a warm singing of “God Bless America.” The crowd joined in with a rich tenor at the song’s well-known chorus.

It is important, keynote speaker Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo told the crowd, to remember the origins of Veterans Day. Elfo’s father and uncles served in WWII, and his grandfather served in WWI.

“I’m afraid all too often the importance of Veterans Day has become lost, with many considering it a day off work, a day for sales,” Elfo said. “This is a day that honors veterans for their love of country, their honor, and their sacrifices for the common good.”

Veterans from each branch of the armed service took their turn standing or raising their hands as the alumni band played their branch’s service song.

After bagpipers played “Amazing Grace,” the audience stood in silence, some holding their arms in salute, as the Albert J. Hamilton American Legion Post No. 7 rifle squad filed out of the hall.

The ceremony ended with a 21-gun salute outside City Hall in honor of the fallen, while a single trumpeter played taps. Tears streamed down the faces of several of the men and women present.

U.S. Marine Bob “Corkey” Lemke, a World War II veteran, and his wife, Betty, said it was their first time at the City Hall ceremony, but if things worked out, they’d be back again next year.

The two said many people had honored them through the years for Bob’s service. Lemke recalled a flight from Seattle to Bellingham when the pilot asked to see him afterward.

“He gave me the wings from his coat,” Lemke said, starting to cry. “He said, ‘My father was killed in World War II and I want you to have these.’ I wear that on my World War II cap.”