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Wreaths Across America to remember veterans from area with stops in Groton, New London, Norwich, other towns

By Claire Bessette

Publication: The Day

Published December 02. 2013 4:00AM

Seeing a Wal-Mart tractor-trailer truck on Connecticut highways in the height of the Christmas shopping season likely wouldn't turn heads, but the truck coming through eastern Connecticut on Dec. 10 and 11 will be different.

It will be escorted by two dozen flag-bearing motorcycles, pickups and other vehicles as it carries a full load of green Christmas wreaths with red bows toward its final destination of Arlington National Cemetery. The annual Wreaths Across America parade of trucks places wreaths on thousands of veterans' graves at Arlington and at local cemeteries and memorial sites in all 50 states and beyond.

The national Wreaths Across America event will be Saturday, Dec. 14, at sites throughout the country, including three in Norwich and one in Preston.

Earlier that week, the parade, which takes a different route through the state each year, will make several stops in eastern Connecticut as part of the nonprofit Maine-based group's mission to "remember, honor and teach about the service and sacrifices of our veterans, active military and their families."

On Dec. 10, the parade will start at 9 a.m. at Cabela's sporting goods store in East Hartford. The parade will stop at the Wall of Honor at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford and then proceed to schools in Cromwell and Cheshire before heading to the Old Saybrook Fire Department in the mid afternoon. A ceremonial program is planned for about 6 p.m. at the memorial next to the fire department.

On Wednesday, the truck parade stays in southeastern Connecticut for the entire day, starting at about 9:15 a.m. at the Flanders Elementary School in East Lyme for a program. By about 11:15 a.m., the group is expected to reach Chelsea Parade in Norwich for an 11:30 a.m. wreath-laying ceremony at the war memorial park there.

At noon, the parade is expected to arrive at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London for another program and then head to the USS Nautilus Museum in Groton for a ceremony no later than 2 p.m.

William "Skip" Petras of Portland, ride captain of the motorcycle group Patriot Guard Riders, plans to do a test drive of the entire Connecticut route this weekend to test the scheduled times. He said he will drive a pickup in the parade carrying supplies to the various stops.

According to the Wreaths Across America website, www.wreathsacrossamerica.org, 67 sites will receive wreaths in the simultaneous wreath-laying Dec. 14. But those wreaths will be delivered to the Connecticut groups sponsoring events by different trucks. The Wal-Mart truck in the parade will be packed full of wreaths headed for Arlington National Cemetery, Petras said. The truck will leave Connecticut for New Jersey early Dec. 13 to meet up with other trucks bound for Arlington.

Dennis Baptiste, a member of the Norwich Area Veterans' Council, said the group plans to place wreaths at veterans' graves and memorials at three Norwich locations, the memorial at Chelsea Parade, on graves in Sacred Heart Cemetery on Route 169 in Taftville and at the Yantic Cemetery on Lafayette Street.

Baptiste also plans to reserve two wreaths to be placed at the former Norwich Hospital site of a 1944 collision and crash of two Hellcat fighter planes in training. On Oct. 19, 1944, pilots Ensign George K. Kraus, 22, of Wisconsin and Ensign Merle H. Longnecker, 20, of North Dakota were killed when their planes collided over Laurel Hill in Norwich and crashed on a hilltop of the former Norwich Hospital property.

The site is deep in the woods, so the Norwich Area Veterans' Council hopes to hold a public ceremony on Dec. 14 at the entrance to the property at the Southeast Area Transit headquarters on Route 12 and then send carriers in an ATV or other off-road vehicle to the site where crash debris is still visible, Baptiste said.

c.bessette@theday.com

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