They died in far corners of the world in places like Long An, Vietnam, Lorraine, France and Tarin Kowt, Afghanistan, but on Monday, 18 fallen Santa Ynez Valley soldiers made it home when a plaque memorializing their service was dedicated in Solvang Park.
The plaque, honoring Valley veterans who died in the line of duty from WWI to the most recent conflicts in the Middle East, comes after months of planning between the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.
“Today, we’ll engrave these 18 names in America’s consciousness. We will never forget these men. They died so that others may live in freedom and they deserve a place in their Valley’s history. They serve as a reminder for generations to come that freedom has a heavy price,” Robert Hatch, a decorated Vietnam Veteran, told a crowd of hundreds of onlookers Monday morning.
Moments later, a plaque set into the base of the flag pole at Solvang Park was unveiled, engraved with the names of the 18 Valley veterans who died before making it back home.
The plaque not only recognizes those killed, but the family members of those honored,
“The names etched in bronze in this plaque represent not only the individual but the mothers, brothers, father and wives of our fallen brothers who carry the lasting burden of loss,” American Legion Post 160 Commander Jeff Mckeone said.
For Jeanine Moniot, the widow of Vietnam-era veteran David Tibbetts, who died in combat, the occasion was emotional. Monday would have marked her 46th wedding anniversary with her high school sweetheart. Tibbetts’ brother flew in from Alaska for the ceremony, along with nephews and relatives from out of state.
“It’s so emotional,” Moniot said after the dedication.
Dixie Henrey, the 91-year old mother of Richard Henrey, another Vietnam-era veteran whose name is etched on the plaque, said the memorial serves as a reminder about what some have sacrificed for this country.
“People forget,” she said. “It’s nice to be reminded, so people don’t forget.”
In the tight-knit Santa Ynez Valley, few veterans are unknown. Hatch said he knew three soldiers being honored personally, but others were legends that he learned about over time.
“I wish I would have done more to preserve those images. I have a faded Polaroid of Ricky Henrey playing ball on Fourth and Elm near the home I grew up in. I can recall visiting the Burchardi home with my grandmother when I was young, only to wonder who the picture atop the mantle of the airman and his plane were. I remember reading about others and how dramatically their lives were altered when that notification arrived,” Hatch continued.
The plaque “signifies the payment of a long overdue debt,” Hatch said. “One that we cannot fully repay.”
Those honored include:
- Adolph Burchardi, a Marine Corps sniper who died just days before the end of WWI when he was shot by an enemy sniper.
- Delbert Carter, one of 14 U.S. Navy prisoners of war executed by a Japanese firing squad June 19, 1945.
- George Downs, a Buellton local born in 1924 who owned a ranching business in high school with fellow fallen veteran John Pedercini. Downs, who was assigned to an Army anti-aircraft unit in Honolulu, Hawaii became ill and died in an Army hospital.
- Lucius Manning, a U.S. Army Air Corps pilot who served in WWI. Manning served as CEO of American Airlines and established a 4,000 acre ranch famous for purebred heifers and Tennessee walking horses after the war. He re-entered the Airforce in 1942 and died when his B26 bomber crashed in Alabama.
- John Melbourne, a U.S. Army Company Commander born in Indiana who trained at Camp Cook (now Vandenberg Air Force Base) in 1942 in the Sixth Armored Division. Melbourne, who lived in Solvang, died in France in 1944.
- George Ortega, a U.S. Army Sgt. who grew up farming in Buellton. He died in heavy action in the Pacific while fighting the Japanese and was honored with the Purple Heart among other citations. Ortega was the oldest of four brothers who all served in the military.
- John Pedercini, a B24 bomber pilot whose aircraft was shot down and crashed in a controlled glide over Austria in 1944. He was buried in a cemetery in Lorraine, France.
- Grant Schley, a pilot raised in New England who left Yale University his freshman year to establish an airline between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in 1935. Seven years later, Schley was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Transport Command Faring Division. He died, along with three others, when his B-25 crashed in the foothills of the Sierra Madre Mountains in 1943. He was 35 years old.
- Hermann Burchardi, a Naval pilot from Solvang who drowned in 1948 when his Douglas AD2 Fighter Bomber crashed during a training exercise off the coast of San Diego.
- William Alvarado Valdez, a U.S. Army Private who grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley before moving to Monterey and voluntarily enlisting before the Korean War broke out. The 20-year old infantry tank crew member died in action in the Republic of Korea in 1950.
- Billie Beard, a Colorado native who grew up in Lompoc and joined the Army after graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. Beard served in Korea and Germany before being transferred to Vietnam, where he drowned off the coast in 1962.
- Richard Henrey, a 19-year old Army airman from Solvang who died on his second tour of duty in Vietnam when his helicopter crashed into the ocean in 1967.
John Robert Hill, who was originally from Altadena, Calif., grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley and joined the U.S. Marine Corps shortly after graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in 1956. Hill, a staff sergeant and career soldier, died in combat in Vietnam in 1969.
- Robert Pacheco, a U.S. Marine Private 1st Class who died while fighting in south Vietnam in 1968. He was 20 years old.
- David Tibbetts, a U.S. Army combat radio operator who grew up in Solvang and died while serving a tour of duty in south Vietnam in 1967.
- Steven Staggers, a Buellton local who enlisted in the U.S. Navy after graduating from high school. Staggers died when his helicopter crashed during a training exercise at Camp Pendleton in 1978.
- Aaron Allen, a U.S. Marine from Buellton who enlisted in 2004 after graduating from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School. Allen died on his second combat tour in Iraq in 2008. A memorial site honoring his service is on Avenue of Flags.
- Joshua Townsend, a U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret who grew up in Solvang and graduated from Santa Ynez Valley Union High School in 1997. Townsend enlisted in the army in 2003, and received a bronze star for gallantry in combat. He died in January 2009 at a base in Afhanistan from non-combat related injuries.