By Mark Scheer
Niagara Gazette — They’ve gathered together for the past 19 years now.
Each year, always on Dec. 7 - the date President Franklin D. Roosevelt famously described as a “date which will live in infamy” - remaining members of the Lasalle High School classes of 1941 through 1945 hold their annual “Pearl Harbor Day Luncheon.”
It is, as the invitation for the event suggests, also known to the members of those classes as “Remembrance Day.”
Every Dec. 7 for nearly two decades, while the rest of the country is remembering those who died during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, this particular group of LaSalle High grads is remembering their fallen colleagues as well - the ones who fought bravely on the battlefields during World War II and during the Korean War. The ones who gave their lives in defense of their country.
“The idea was to honor our classmates who died,” said Jim Fadel, a member of the class of 1944 who helped organize the event. “We thought that they should not be forgotten. They didn’t die at Pearl Harbor, but they died in World War II and we just didn’t want to forget them.”
The members of the five graduating classes involved date back to a time when LaSalle High School was located in the Buffalo Avenue building now known as LaSalle Preparatory School.
The members of each class take turns organizing the annual luncheon. This year’s “Remembrance Day,” held Friday afternoon at the Four Points by Sheraton on Buffalo Avenue, was put together by a committee of members from the class of 1944, including Fadel, Charles Switzer, George Wood and Margaret Bowen.
The real honorees of the special event are recognized on a display that includes pictures of the 42 former LaSalle High students who died while serving in the military during either World War II or the Korean War.
On hand for Friday’s luncheon were several members of the New York Air National Guard’s 107th Airlift Wing, which is stationed at the Niagara Falls Airbase, including Col. Kevin Rogers, Col. John Higgins, Lt. Col. Mike Bank, Chief Master Sgt. Dave Wohleben and Senior Master Sgt. Ray Lloyd.
Rogers said when contacted by his unit’s public relations representative about the possibility of attending Friday’s luncheon, he and the others “jumped” at the chance.
“I believe that they are the greatest generation,” Rogers said. “They were born during the Depression, fought a war, came home, put themselves through college and pretty much built this country.”
Fadel said at one time the annual gatherings drew upwards of 150 people. He acknowledged that as the years have past, the numbers have dwindled, down to about 50 in attendance this year. All of the remaining class members are in their 80s and beyond. Nearly all in attendance served in the military in one branch or another, most during World War II.
Richard Lacey, a member of the graduating class of 1943, recalled his days as a machine gunner who was sent to Europe just after the invasion of Normandy. The 87-year-old LaSalle resident said his unit did a lot of fighting in France and a lot of walking as he carried his 45-pound machine gun on his shoulder.
Lacey said he feels fortunate for having come home safe. He said he also feels for today’s active duty troops and appreciates what they’ve gone through in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
“It’s unfortunate that we’ve got to have wars all the time,” he said. “At least we knew who we were shooting at. The guys over there don’t know who they are shooting at half the time.”
Lacey was among the lucky ones who survived the war. He came back to the Falls where he worked at Union Carbide and eventually retired from Wendt’s Dairy. Today, he’s active in the retired men’s choir and boasts that he played 34 times at the Hyde Park Golf Course this year.
“I got my money’s worth,” he quipped.
As for those classmates of his that weren’t as fortunate, Lacey said it’s important every year to remember them and what they did in service to their country.
“It’s important because the fellas that sacrificed their lives over there in the different zones where they fought, I knew a lot of them,” he said.