There is more than a parade to Westport’s Memorial Day celebration.
Every year after the last firefighter, float and Brownie has passed Town Hall, a simple ceremony takes place across the way at Veteran’s Green.
The first selectman honors Westport veterans who died the previous year. There’s a police honor guard and wreath-laying. “Taps” is played.
The grand marshal speaks too. This year, 98-year-old World War II veteran Nick Rossi asked his grandson — also named Nick Rossi — to deliver those remarks.
It was an inspired choice. Nick Jr. — who graduated from Staples High School in 2020, and just completed his freshman year at Boston College — awed the crowd with insightful, inspiring words. Speaking powerfully and from the heart, he said:
Good morning, Westport!
My name is Nick Rossi, and I am the grandson of the grand marshal. It is my honor and privilege to share the stage today with my grandfather, Nicholas Rossi, as we celebrate him and all the veterans we remember today, on this very special Memorial Day holiday.
As most of you know, traditionally the grand marshal is called upon to share some remarks at this ceremony. My grandfather asked me to help him do so this morning, as it is a challenge for him (at almost 99 years of age) to manage this kind of public speaking engagement. So, with Mr. Vornkahl’s blessing, I’d like to share with you a few things I know about Nick Rossi, Senior.
Nicholas Rossi was born in Oyster Bay, New York in September of 1922.
Soon after graduation from high school, he enlisted in the Army Air Corps during World War II and served from December, 1942 through March, 1945. When he enlisted, he was 19 years old ~ the same age that I am right now. It is unimaginable to me what it must have felt like to go off to war as a young man who had barely begun to live his life. It was a selfless sacrifice, not even a choice at that point in time, but an expectation that that generation of young men would enlist and serve our country.
While his parents, who were immigrants from Italy, were filled with anxiety and reluctance, they let him go. Initially drafted into the Infantry, he found his way to the Air Corps. Thinking this was a “safer,” perhaps more elite assignment, he soon learned that there was nothing safe about fighting the war from the skies.
His flight crew was part of the 305th Bombardment Group of the 364th Squadron, assigned to the 8th Air Force Bomber Command in England which flew the B-17 “Flying Fortress” bomber in the European Theater. A technical sergeant, he flew multiple bombing missions over Nazi-occupied central Europe. He sat behind the pilot and co-pilot, handling fuel and mechanical issues, and trouble-shooting any technical problems. He became an expert on the B-17 aircraft.
As my grandfather has gotten older, his memory at times fails him. Yet he can still recount for us in amazing detail what it was like to be part of those terrifying missions, to be shot at relentlessly by the Germans, to watch his comrades fall from the sky under firestorm attack, and then to return from a mission to find that the airman who slept in the bunk above him never returned.
He talks about the attitude that eventually overtook these men — they were resigned to believe that there was a good probability that they, too, would eventually not make it back from the next mission…but they still climbed into their planes for the next flight, ready to go to battle to defend our country.
These recollections are unfathomable to me, and to this day remain disturbing to him. He reminds us how awful war is, and what the price for peace really costs in terms of soldiers’ lives lost. It is on a day like today when we remember, with enormous gratitude, what these men (and women), and all the fallen veterans of war, did to guarantee our freedom, liberty, and democracy.
How do we even begin to thank them for their sacrifices?
Nicholas Rossi was discharged from the Army in March, 1945 but remained in Liege, Belgium after the war for several more years. As a civilian, he was employed by the government to work with the American Graves Registration Command for the purpose of locating and identifying unrecovered dead military personnel. “It was not a nice job,” but for my grandfather, it was important work to do, to stay behind and help account for the lost soldiers, as it provided closure for their families, many of whom eventually traveled to Europe to reclaim their sons, husbands, and brothers. Perhaps it provided some closure for him, too, after living through the horrors of World War II.
When we think about why Memorial Day was established in the first place back in the late 1800s, for the purpose of decorating the graves of the soldiers who died in defense of our country, it seems there is some kind of connection when I think of my grandfather working over the graves of his comrades – it was an emotionally devastating job, but it was his way of honoring them, of giving them dignity and respect, as these servicemen were the true heroes. We remember and honor them today.
Upon returning to the States in 1949, my grandfather attended Hofstra University on the GI Bill, earned a master’s degree in Industrial Engineering, and embarked on a career in the furniture industry which he pursued with great success for the next forty-plus years. He met his wife Elizabeth on Long Island during the early years of his professional career and married in 1956, raising five children in the house that he built in Mill Neck, New York. He remained very involved in his community on Long Island, as a member of the Knights of Columbus, the American Legion, the Oyster Bay Italian-American Citizens Club, and the Brookville Country Club.
After my grandmother passed in 2018, my grandfather relocated to Westport to live with our family. While he still considers Oyster Bay his first home, he has truly enjoyed becoming a part of the Westport community. I have been lucky enough to spend more time with him, especially since the beginning of the pandemic, and I believe it’s nothing short of special that three generations of the Rossi lineage are under one roof. After many hours spent working out in the yard gardening or reading the newspapers together, I have picked up on some colorful Italian sayings — and insults — that I’ve brought back with me to campus, as my friends can attest.
Now in his 99th year, he is delighted to be this year’s grand marshal of the Westport Memorial Day parade, and on his behalf — I would like to extend his genuine gratitude to everyone in this town who has welcomed him, embraced him, and now today — honors him.
In closing, I will echo a prayer that we say in our church, something called the “Prayer of the Faithful”: “For all the men and women who served in the armed forces, for those who put themselves in harm’s way on our behalf, let us pray to the Lord.”
On behalf of this year’s grand marshal, my grandfather ~ Nicholas Rossi ~ Thank you for this honor! And thank you to all the brave men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.