CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Marvin Hume doesn’t need Veterans Day to celebrate veterans.
Near his home on the southern tip of New Jersey, Hume’s been raising flags that covered the caskets of veterans from World War II to Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s been doing it each morning of every summer for 40 years.
At dusk, as summer crowds gather on the coast to watch the setting sun, the World War II veteran calls out for men to remove their caps and veterans to salute the flag. From the gift shops he’s owned since 1973, a recorded Kate Smith blurts out her “God Bless America.” The national anthem follows.
And as taps is played, Hume lowers the flag – usually with an assist from family members of the honored veteran.
“It’s as moving now as it was the first one we did 40 years ago,” Hume said, tears welling. “I think of all the many buddies I lost. People come and try to give me $20, and I tell them, ‘Don’t you dare insult me. This is my honor.’?”
To celebrate this Veterans Day, Hume will be at the yearly US Airways Freedom Breakfast on Friday morning to receive a special achievement award from the Carolinas Freedom Foundation. Saturday, he’ll be one of the grand marshals for the US Airways Salute to Veterans Parade through uptown.
The foundation is presenting a second achievement award to the Patriot Guard Riders, the organization of motorcyclists that escorts the caskets of fallen troops.
The group also is set to give former Army Green Beret Roddey Dowd Sr. of Charlotte its Freedom Award for his work over the years to promote patriotism.
In 1970, Dowd led a letter-writing campaign to persuade North Vietnam officials to release information on 1,500 American POWs. He and a contingent from Charlotte flew to Paris to deliver nearly 397,000 letters – weighing 4 1/2 tons in 85 sacks – that also urged humane treatment.
They took the letters to the North Vietnamese mission, but no one answered. Before leaving, they stuffed letters through a mail slot.
In the late 1980s, Dowd and two Charlotte friends, Obie Oakley and Tommy Norman – all Green Beret captains who served together in the National Guard – decided Mecklenburg needed to honor its 101 natives who were among the 58,000 to lose their lives in Vietnam.
They raised $356,000 and built the memorial between Third and Fourth streets. It was dedicated in 1989.
“Mr. Dowd, Mr. Hume and the Patriot Guard Riders pay tribute daily to those who served and sacrificed for our country,” said Oakley, the foundation’s executive director. “We are honored to be among them.”
Hume arrived in Charlotte on Thursday, fully honored to be receiving the award.
Forty years ago, he bought a spit of land at Sunset Beach near Cape May Point. The property came with a cottage, three gift shops, a grill – and a wooden flagpole dug into the sand along the Delaware Bay.
He’d grown up in Collingswood, N.J., with his two best friends, Joe Hittorff and Walter Simon.
“We did everything together,” Hume said. “We played ball with each other. We were Scouts together.”
They all went off to the Navy. On Dec. 7, 1941, Hume lost his two friends. Hittorff, a Naval Academy graduate, was on the USS Oklahoma at the end of Battleship Row when it was hit by a torpedo from attacking Japanese planes.
“Joe was trapped; he couldn’t extract himself,” Hume said. “Two of his men attempted to pull him loose. But he told them, ‘It’s no use. The ship is going down.’?”
The ship capsized and Hittorff was one of 20 officers and 395 enlisted men who died.
Simon died on the USS Arizona, the battleship that was bombed and blew up in the attack, killing 1,177 officers and crewmen.
“In one day, my two best friends were gone,” said Hume, a Navy engineer who upfitted planes and later was wounded by five pieces of shrapnel on the Pacific island of Saipan.
The day he closed on the Sunset Beach property, Hume hatched the idea to fly casket flags at the flagpole to honor his friends. He didn’t have the flags for Hittorff and Simon.
So he bought an ad in a local newspaper asking for casket flags. He got two.
The next day, he raised a flag for Hittorff and the following day for Simon.
Yet the flags kept coming. Forty years later, he’s held more than 6,000 ceremonies with casket flags and the ceremonies are booked through 2013.
Most summer evenings, 1,000 people park in a line that often stretches a quarter mile for the ceremonies.
After the flags are lowered, Hume salutes each veteran. He’ll be 92 in February, and knows that one day his flag will be raised on his beach.
His son, Larry, and daughters, Kathy Hume and Sharon Bloom, have promised to carry on the tradition.
“It makes me immensely happy to know that what I started with no intention of anything continuing – and that has grown into a movement in many towns – will go on when I’m gone,” he said. “You can’t ask for anything more than that.”