The following article was written by Jack Broom, Seattle Times Staff Reporter. He showcases a beloved fixture of Memorial Day celebrations at Evergreen Washelli, Walter Gallagher.
Navy veteran Walter Gallagher believes in honoring those who fought for his freedom and on Memorial Day he’s done so faithfully — since 1953.
No, says Walter Gallagher, he didn’t personally know any of the men or women whose earthly remains lie beneath some 5,000 white marble tombstones on a peaceful knoll just off Aurora Avenue North.
But he wouldn’t think of spending Memorial Day away from them.
“They served their country,” said Gallagher, 87. “That’s what matters.”
Gallagher walks the trimmed lawn between rows of freshly cleaned headstones at Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Seattle as comfortably as if he’s among old friends. And in a sense, he is.
Since Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, Gallagher, a Seattle-born Navy veteran, can remember only one time — about 10 years ago, when he was sick in bed with the flu — that he failed to attend the cemetery’s annual Memorial Day observance.
And on Monday, he’ll once more climb behind the wheel of his green ’92 Chevy Caprice wagon (which recently passed 200,000 miles) and drive the 15 minutes from his Wedgwood rental house to the cemetery, making sure he’s there well in advance of the 2 p.m. ceremony.
For years, Gallagher carried an American flag in a parade of colors at the event, with members of his American Legion post. More recently, since he banged his shoulder in a door jamb a few years back, he has turned to handing out small flags to people as they arrive.
Over time, he’s seen sunny Memorial Days, cloudy Memorial Days, breezy Memorial Days and at least one drenching Memorial Day that forced part of the event indoors.
One of his five sons, Garry Gallagher, of Woodinville, often joins him, and said it’s no mystery why his father considers this a solemn obligation.
“He appreciates his freedom,” said Garry Gallagher, 55. “It really boils down to just that.”
A free America isn’t something Walter Gallagher’s generation could take for granted when — five days after his 18th birthday in December 1941 — Pearl Harbor was bombed by Japan.
Within weeks, Gallagher enlisted. There was no question about joining the military, he said. “We were under attack. People were signing up faster that they could take them in.”
The only issue was which branch of the service to join, and Gallagher’s choice was influenced by summertime “Fleet Weeks” of his childhood, when Navy vessels welcomed visitors on the Seattle waterfront.
“To me, the Navy looked like clean quarters and good food.”
That’s not exactly what he got. He became a bombardier and gunner in a unit of PBY Catalinas, military floatplanes armed with machine guns and bombs, carrying nine-man crews.
Gallagher flew in numerous South Pacific missions as part of the “Black Cat Squadron,” known for aircraft painted all black. They made their perilous bombing, patrol and reconnaissance missions at night, when their dark color made them difficult for the enemy to see, even with searchlights.
After the war, Gallagher returned to Seattle, where, from 1946 to 1981, he delivered bundles of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer to racks, stores and newsstands around town.
These days, Gallagher, who said he has survived two ex-wives, has a simple daily routine that nearly always starts with coffee with regulars at the Little Red Hen near Green Lake and often ends with a drink at the Baranof in Greenwood.
He visits the veterans cemetery, which is part of Evergreen Washelli Cemetery, not just on Memorial Day but usually on Veterans Day and often on Independence Day as well.
“We used to have World War I veterans (at the events) and they’re gone now.” he said. “And us World War II veterans are fading fast … As long as I can drive and walk, I’ll be there.”
Jack Broom: 206-464-2222 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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