Cape Cod town dedicates 'chair of honor' to POW/MIA
FALMOUTH, Mass. — For 2½ years, Harrison Baker trucked up and down the Burma Road, slogging through mud so thick it would take two days to travel 30 miles.
In the dry season, he would wear a dust mask, always worried about the bugs, the heat, the risk of malaria.
At 92, the Army veteran still feels lucky to have made it home from the Pacific theater to Massachusetts, especially on days like Friday, when the town of Falmouth dedicated a "chair of honor" for the more than 91,000 servicemen and women nationally who are unaccounted for since World War I, those were taken prisoner or went missing and never came back.
"They get you. There's just something inside of you. ... I can't explain it," Baker said. "The older you get, the more feeling you have for this kind of thing. It brings back a lot of stuff from 70 years ago."
Sitting with his cane in the back row, wearing a black hat embroidered with the words "World War II Veteran" inside Falmouth Town Hall, Baker looked on Friday as the curtain was lifted on a black fold-up chair cordoned off by red velvet ropes.
"It should not only be a few among us that help families carry the torch, year after year, decade after decade, for those who are missing," said Ahmed Mustafa, chairman of the town Veterans' Council. "It needs to be all of us, as one community."
The chair always will sit empty, honoring veterans in the Town Hall lobby with the POW/MIA symbol emblazoned in white on the seatback.
And while it is the first such chair to come to Cape Cod, veterans advocates and local officials said they hope it will not be the last.
"They're all just as important, but it is good to get down to the Cape and get our first one," said Joe D'Entremont, president of Rolling Thunder Massachusetts, adding that the veterans group is in the midst of bringing a similar chair to Yarmouth. "We're here to make sure everyone understands there are thousands and thousands of POWs and MIAs from America's past wars."
The dedication ceremony featured speeches from current and former state legislators such as state Rep. David Vieira, R-Falmouth, and former state Rep. Matthew Patrick, a Falmouth Democrat who lost to Vieira in 2010 but is now running to replace outgoing Senate President Therese Murray. Like Baker, Patrick's father served in the Pacific during World War II.
"They just deserve everything we can do for them," Patrick said of veterans.
State Rep. Vinny deMacedo, a Plymouth Republican who is also running for the Plymouth and Barnstable District state Senate seat, sat in the front row but did not have a speaking role.
Vieira recounted D'Entremont's presentation at the Statehouse, where he put one of the chairs outside the offices of Speaker Robert DeLeo and House Minority Leader Brad Jones to show the effort was bipartisan.
D'Entremont challenged legislators to help him put the chairs in every city and town hall, and Vieira returned to the Cape and contacted the three towns in his district: Bourne, Mashpee and Falmouth. In Falmouth, Julie Cramer, assistant to the director of Veterans' Services, said the town already had ordered the chair.
Vieira noted that the chair is portable and said he hopes it is taken to schools and community buildings "to make sure that no one forgets, that we always remember."
Though there aren't many, U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., said he still has calls to his office from constituents haunted by the fact that they have a friend or loved one who remains missing in action. The callers still have faith and hold on to hope, he said.
"That's what's important about this," he said.
"When people sacrifice so much, giving up themselves, when they move from their family, their loved ones, their communities, they never forgot that sense of duty. When they came under firefights, and their lives were at risk and some of them were wounded, they never forgot that sense of duty. And for those who were separated from their fellow soldiers and were prisoners of war, they still never forgot that duty. So it's important that Falmouth — the first community on the Cape to do this, followed by Yarmouth and I'm sure others — never forget as well."