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Vets honored for patriotism, dedication, service to the country

George Kessler Winthrop Harbor an Air Force veteran during moment silence Veterans Day luncheSaturday Park Place Senior Center Waukegan. |

George Kessler of Winthrop Harbor, an Air Force veteran, during a moment of silenceat the Veterans Day luncheon Saturday at Park Place Senior Center in Waukegan. | Joe Shuman~For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 11, 2013 1:46AM

A 91-year-old Waukegan man was doubly honored Saturday at a Veterans Day celebration sponsored by Waukegan Township.

Ray Kulmala, a World War II Navy veteran who was born on Veterans Day, 1921, was presented a plaque honoring his patriotism, dedication and service to the country by township supervisor Patricia Jones who organized the annual event at the Park Place senior center in Waukegan.

“This is a surprise. I didn’t expect this. I was just told to give a 5-minute presentation at the podium,” said Kulmala, a 1941 Waukegan High School graduate who enlisted in the Navy after that.

“It’s great. Great,” he added, nearly speechless, after receiving the honor amid thunderous applause.

Kulmala was born Nov. 11, 1921, three years after World War I ended. “It used to be called Armistice Day,” he noted.

He recalled when he joined the Navy that he was supposed to receive 13 weeks of training at the Great Lakes Naval Base. Instead, he said, they were “rushed through in three weeks because of the war.”

“We finished training aboard the USS Leonard Wood, a transport,” said Kulmala, who was accompanied by his wife of 57 years, Laura, at the celebration.

Kulmala was boatswain 2nd class, serving as a helm’s man of an LST (landing ship tank), an amphibious ship that can be driven up to the shore, open its front and lower its deck to facilitate landing operations. Wearing a sweatshirt bearing a picture of an LST, he said he saw action in West Africa and South Pacific and witnessed the bravery and sacrifices of fellow soldiers.

Waukegan Mayor Robert Sabonjian Jr. told the audience of how patriotism transcended racial prejudices involving his family. He said while the late father of his Japanese-American wife was fighting in Italy for America and its allies, the family members of his father in law were interned in concentration camps in Wyoming and Arizona for “security reasons” because of their Japanese ancestry.

“This goes to show that patriotism knows no bounds,” said Sabonjian of Yoneo “John” Takamoto, a decorated U.S. Army private with a Purple Heart and a Silver Star to his name. He said Takamoto’s regiment fought bravely and suffered heavy casualties.

The mayor said he regretted he had never met him, as he died before he the mayor met his wife, Jo-An Takamoto. She was not with him at the celebration Saturday because she was in California attending a Japanese-American function.

Park Place was packed with other old soldiers who came to share their memories of wars. Among them was Martin Petersen, 92, of Waukegan, a marine who participated, he said, in six battles in South Pacific and saw many of his comrades killed.

“It feels great to be honored,” he said through his wife, Marian, and daughter Diane.

Paying tribute to the veterans were 10th District Congressman-elect Brad Schneider (D-Deerfield); Capt. Randall Lynch, Great Lakes Naval Base commander; and Waukegan Police Chief Daniel Greathouse.

Thoughout the luncheon, patriotic music soared. The Great Lakes Naval Band played. Donna Dallas sang God Bless America. To bring back memories of the war years, Carolyn Wehner, a pianist who sang several popular melodies of the period, including “You’ll Never Know,” which was based on a poem written by a young Oklahoma war bride.

The celebration ended with the audience singing “God Bless the USA” in unison with lines like “That I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free. And I won’t forget the men who died, who gave that right to me.” Many waved the little Stars and Spangles that had decorated their tables.

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