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Mystic ?- On Dec. 7, 1941, Virgil Huntley of Mystic was in a movie theater watching a Gary Cooper film called ?Sergeant York,? about a real-life World War I hero. When the screening was over, Huntley emerged from the cinema and learned that Japan had just bombed Pearl Harbor. He knew immediately what he would do ? enlist.
?I walked out of a movie about World War I and directly into World War II,? Huntley said Saturday.
Now 95, Huntley was speaking at the Mystic VFW Post 3263 at a ceremony commemorating Pearl Harbor Day. As part of the memorial, Huntley received his 65-year pin as a member in good standing of Post 3263.
About 50 people from across generations attended the service ? civilians and veterans alike ? and state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, who presented Huntley with his pin, was touched by the turnout.
?It?s an extraordinary honor to be here for any reason, but particularly on observance of Pearl Harbor Day,? said Maynard, who served four years as chairman of the Select Committee on Veterans? Affairs. ?I am in awe of our military ? those who fight to protect us. I look around this room at all these vets and I have to remind myself ? they were kids when they fought. Eighteen, 19 and 20 years old, many of them. Can you imagine??
Ray Ross, post commander, emceed the service. A veteran of two tours of Vietnam, Ross? tone was solemn as he gave a bit of history about the attack on Pearl Harbor ? including that 2,386 Americans died, 1,139 were wounded, and most of the Pacific Fleet was in shambles.
?Every American should be familiar with these facts,? Ross said. ?It led us into four years of war that changed the world ? and we owe much to those who paid so dearly that day and in that war.?
Ross also noted that attending the service were veterans who served in such conflicts as Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, and current and recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
?We all pay the price for freedom,? Ross said, ?and we pray for those who are in harm?s way today and who fought for freedom in the past.?
After Ross? remarks, Huntley was introduced as a longtime employee of the Mystic Post Office who still drives himself to the senior center to play mahjong. During World War II, he served throughout the Pacific and was awarded several medals for his service in the Philippines, New Zealand, French New Caledonia, New Guinea and Guadalcanal.
Maynard presented Huntley with his pin and asked if there was any remarks he?d like to make.
?Damned few,? Huntley said to great laughter ? then shared the anecdote about seeing ?Sergeant York.?
After a recording of taps played, the formal presentation was over and vets and guests retreated to the lounge for conversation and refreshments.
?I?ve known Virgil for years, since we were in the breakfast club that used to meet at the old Bee Bee Dairy,? said Louisa Watrous. ?He?s so charming and even today, he?s considered the unofficial mayor of Mystic. I think it?s wonderful he was honored on Pearl Harbor Day. It?s very appropriate.?
Ed Mitchell, who serves as post chaplain who offered a group prayer during the ceremony, said, ?It?s very emotional to be here today and to think about those who died that day. But it?s also very special to be here with everyone who gathered for the same reasons.?
Ken Duenzl, who served in Iraq, Afghanistan and in Operation Desert Storm, said, ?I wanted to be here in particular because there aren?t that many World War II veterans left. It?s sad to think that one day, there won?t be any survivors from that war. But at the same time, it?s gratifying that so many generations of soldiers are here today.?
?I?ll never forget Pearl Harbor,? said Fritz Hilbert, chief of the Mystic Fire Department, who wanted to be on hand not just to honor his friend, Huntley, but because of the whole significance of Pearl Harbor Day. ?My father was 17 when it happened. He walked directly out of high school that day and enlisted. Thousands did. We should never forget that.?