by Timothy Chipp
Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — Jim Connery was just 18 years old when he enlisted in the Navy and was thrust into a raging conflict the country was embroiled in.
He was stationed on the U.S.S. Mississinewa, shipped out from the Chesapeake Bay in May 1944, making its way to the Pacific Ocean and Pearl Harbor. Months later, on Nov. 20, 1944, his home was attacked, torpedoed by a manned Japanese unit.
The attack killed 63 of Connery's fellow sailors and injured several more.
"I was only in the water for the 10 to 15 minutes," he said. "We were picked up and taken to shore. We came back on the U.S.S. Wichita."
Exactly 68 years later, Connery was one of several veterans honored by Lewiston-Porter Primary Education Center students from both Angela VanEgmond's first-grade class and Tina Rodriguez's kindergarten class.
The students took to the school's stage and sang several patriotic songs for the visitors, including about 10 veterans who have connections to the school. They sang The Star-Spangled Banner, Yankee Doodle Dandy and Hero – made famous by Mariah Carey.
He said watching the students was great and made him feel proud.
"I was here last year and I was happy they invited me back," he said. "I'm very proud of them. They work hard for this."
Connery has attended both years, but he has a special connection to the class. He's the uncle to VanEgmond's husband, Niagara Falls Police Traffic Officer James VanEgmond. And Rodriguez also had a familial representative Tuesday as her step-son, Stephen Rodriguez, returned home from the United States Naval Academy for the holiday.
In fact, the younger Rodriguez surprised his family, returning home early for the holiday to speak to local high schools about the Navy before the Thanksgiving holiday break.
"I've always known I wanted to serve," Rodriguez said of joining the Navy. "When we went to tour it, it just felt like the right choice to me. Now I'm touring around the local schools, spreading the word about the Navy while I'm here."
Rodriguez may not stay in the Navy, though. he said he wants, eventually, to serve in the Marine Corps as a pilot of some sort. He hasn't made up his mind about whether it'll be a helicopter or plane, though.
But no matter what he does, he said he fully understands the sacrifices of those who served before him, including Connery and his own grandfather, who was in the Navy himself.
"I'm proud to follow in the footsteps of people like (Connery) and my Grandpa," he said.
The students in the classrooms, even at the youngest ages, also understand. Teachers like Tina Rodriguez make sure they, too, continue to remember the sacrifices the soldiers make, even in ways younger children can understand.
"We're truly so thankful for our service men and women," she said. "They make the sacrifice for our freedom. We feel we need to teach our kids that freedom isn't really free, teach patriotism and teach the importance of what these men and women do for us."
"We hold this ceremony this week because we truly are thankful for what our veterans and service men and women do for us," Angela VanEgmond said.