A Memorial Day Service at Glen Haven Memorial Park in Winter Park will honor the country’s fallen heroes in the military.
There wasn’t much time.
U.S. Marine Corps helicopter pilot Scott Harris knew that full well when he came to, still buckled in to his seat in a helicopter that was both upside down and 15 feet under water in the Pacific Ocean.
The water 10 miles off the coast of California is frigid — 50 degrees Fahrenheit and life-threatening, stealing warmth from the bodies of 14 Marines trying to escape the submerged helicopter.
Harris quickly unbuckled himself from his seat and swam out of the cockpit. The propellers of the helicopter — still spinning under water — continued to drag the top-heavy aircraft down into the depths of the ocean.
The crew aboard managed to escape the helicopter and reach the surface, where a raft pushed out of another USMC helicopter waited.
Once the Marines pulled themselves out of the icy water and onto the raft, a horrifying truth set in. One of their own — one of the 14 Marines aboard the helicopter — didn’t make it to the surface.
It’s brave souls such as that Marine who will be on Harris’ mind when he speaks at “We Remember Them,” a Memorial Day Service set for Monday, May 28, at Glen Haven Memorial Park.
The event will honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice and will feature Harris as a keynote speaker; Winter Springs High School Army JROTC; music by the VFW Post 2093 Community Band; emcee Bud Hedinger, 540 WFLA; vocalist Charles Haugabrooks; the Florida State Reenactment Society; American Legion Post 286; and Boy Scout Troop 613.
LT. COL. SCOTT HARRIS
Harris’ mind usually goes back to that fateful day in February 1991 off the coast of Los Angeles every Memorial Day, and that brave passenger who was never found. The helicopter was carrying a squadron headed toward Kuwait as a stabilizing force following the Gulf War. Disaster struck when water from a microburst soaked the engines and caused them to flame out, resulting in the aircraft plunging into the Pacific.
“My wife was watching the news about a helicopter that had gone down, and she knew I was flying that day,” Harris said. “But she didn’t know that I was actually the one in the aircraft. It was quite an introduction to the realities of the profession that I volunteered for.”
It was Harris’ first time flying in a fleet. The retired Marine said if it weren’t for the training he received in Pensacola during flight school, he might not have survived.
Harris recalls the “dunker,” a training method that simulates the exact scenario he faced in the Pacific Ocean. Flight students are buckled into an aircraft and then dunked into a pool in a controlled environment so they can practice escaping the craft.
“Having done it in an actual mishap, the actual event was much faster and much more stressful,” Harris said “I know that because I went through that training in flight school, that allowed me to remain calm and do what I’d been trained to do and to help others that day.
“After my mishap, they instituted that training for every Marine that was going on a deployment in an aviation squadron for the Marine Corps,” he said.
The retired Marine currently works as a Faculty Research Associate at the University of Central Florida and brings with him his 28 years of military experience. Today, he is responsible for the Department of Defense integration with the Institute of Simulation and Training.
Harris said he’s grateful to have a chance to speak at the Memorial Day Service at Glen Haven Memorial Park, and that it’s critical to remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
“It’s a great honor to be a part of Memorial Day,” he said. “ It gives me the chance to think about the members of the Marine Corps and other services that I personally know that have given their life in the service to protect the freedoms that we enjoy in our country.
“From that standpoint, it’s a great honor,” Harris said. “I count it a privilege to be a part of the celebration in Winter Park this year.”
VFW POST 2093 COMMUNITY BAND
Music can sometimes say what words cannot. The VFW Post 2093 Community Band will certainly tell you that.
The group of local musicians led by Director Wilbur “Smitty” Smith performs about 12 concerts every year, from Veterans Day and Memorial Day events to military-related dedications and other ceremonies.
It’s a group of between 50 to 60 members of the community who offer their musical talent to be part of something greater — giving meaningful military events a fitting soundtrack by a live band.
On May 28 in Glen Haven Memorial Park, the band will provide the music that stirs feelings of pride and respect for the Unites States and its armed forces.
It’s an event the band has played for the past eight years or so, Smith said, and the group is happy to be back again.
“The event is a tremendous event out there,” said Smith, who served in the U.S. Navy’s music program for 26 years. “It has grown and we have a great following that comes out there. … I think it’s one of the best things going here in Orlando for Memorial Day.”
The band first was organized by professional musicians Earl Benge, Jr. and Jerry Nowell in 1984, originally founded as the Winter Park Community Band. In 2002, the band moved from its original rehearsal space at Winter Park High School to its current spot at the Orlando VFW Post 2093 on Edgewater Drive. Around that time, the band’s name was changed, as well.
Benge conducted the band until his sudden death in 2005. That’s when Smith took up the mantle, and he has led the band ever since.
Band members such as Russel Hiett, who plays the piccolo and flute, considers his bandmates as family and a wonderful group of close friends.
“I love it,” said Hiett, who served in the U.S. Army as a helicopter pilot. “I’ve been in the band for 31 years. … It’s great fun.”
As the band plays through tunes such as “God Bless America” and “Stars and Stripes,” Hiett thinks about his six flight-school friends who were killed in action in Vietnam.
“I do think about things like that, especially when they have the different ROTC units come up and lay wreathes and do other ceremonial kinds of things,” Hiett said. “I always think about things like that.”