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Buffalo Navy Week remembers our heritage, looks to the future

When you hear the “The Star-Spangled Banner” performed in the same room where the actual star-spangled banner is on display, the chills run deep.

That’s how I felt when I first heard details about OpSail 2012 and its offshoot, Buffalo Navy Week. The announcement was made in June 2011 in the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of American History. The secretary of the navy was in attendance as well as Western New York civic leaders.

The stops along OpSail 2012 – New Orleans, Baltimore, Boston – were events staged on a larger scale than Buffalo’s shallow, inland harbor could accommodate. Yet attending Buffalo Navy Week events was like going to the Olympics. Every day it was something new, often at the same locale, but never did an event fail to impress us.

The multifaceted program was built around the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, and in two years, the bicentennial of the morning when Francis Scott Key penned the national anthem. It was a perfect opportunity to educate Americans on how a nation that had no formal navy went on to defeat Great Britain in the waters of the Atlantic and Lake Erie, and never looked back. The modern, sophisticated warships that tied up at Canalside and in Lackawanna last week offered silent testimony to our naval superiority.

Sure, it was a recruitment drive as well, with sailors in crisp uniforms drawing attention everywhere they went. There were community service projects, concerts and demonstrations of antique weapons. How fortunate

Buffalo was to land a week of such energy and pride.

But there were solemn moments too. Speakers reminded guests to not forget about our service men and women currently serving around the world to safeguard our freedom. There was mention of Marine Cpl. Jason Dunham of Scio, N.Y., who died April 22, 2004, of wounds sustained in combat in Iraq.

He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, and a Navy destroyer was named in his honor. At the first of three ceremonies honoring those who served in the past, Capt. Bruce Boyle made the connection between the hundreds of Americans buried in the Garrison Cemetery in Cheektowaga and the young men and women deployed today. Ironically, British soldiers who died for their country sleep anonymously in the same graveyard.

Forest Lawn Cemetery was the site of an event honoring Commodore Stephen Champlin, a sailor who served valiantly in the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813, then returned to his adopted hometown of Buffalo. His descendants still live here.

Finally, a small group – hardly a crowd at all – assembled Saturday afternoon at Front Park on Buffalo’s West Side to pay tribute to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. You probably have seen his statue as you have driven from Porter Avenue to the Peace Bridge. I am embarrassed to admit it was the first time I visited the site, a fact I heard from others in attendance.

But one man I spoke to had been there several times.

Ollie Hazard, of Ellicottville, is a descendant of the man known as the hero of the Battle of Lake Erie.

It’s easy to see our region’s connection to both the Navy and the War of 1812. Hopefully, the opportunity to tour the ships and experience the exhibits at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park will inspire added pride in our country and open people’s eyes to the excitement of the growing Canalside district. It was a significant step in a new day dawning for downtown.

Out of all the handshakes, photo ops, conversations and comradery, one moment remains at the forefront of my Navy Week memories.

“Taps” was played by MUSN Kristen Brawner to close the observance at the shady Garrison Cemetery along Ellicott Creek. Suddenly, from the ranks of the sailors forming a backdrop for the high command came the singing of the Navy Hymn.

“O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.”

(David F. Sherman a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York, a group of community newspapers with a combined circulation of approximately 75,000 homes. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com)


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