Honoring vets Downashore

Jim Moncrief of West Wildwood shows his granddaughter Lily Moncrief, 3, the display of American flags near the Wildwoods Convention Center during the three-day "Celebration of Heroes" festival. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Jim Moncrief of West Wildwood shows his granddaughter Lily Moncrief, 3, the display of American flags near the Wildwoods Convention Center during the three-day "Celebration of Heroes" festival. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: May 28, 2012

WILDWOOD — There were certainly sunbathers basking on the beach and children riding the boardwalk rides. There were hamburgers and hot dogs and backyard barbecues aplenty. Saturday was, after all, the first day of a three-day weekend that marks the unofficial start to the summer vacation season.

But in this Jersey Shore resort, there’s something more to Memorial Day weekend this year than the usual sun and sand: the city’s first-ever "Celebration of Heroes Beach Festival," an event organizers say is expected to bring more than 250,000 people.

"I think this event really gets us back to our roots and the entire purpose of Memorial Day weekend," said John Siciliano, executive director of the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority, which organized the event.

Siciliano said the concept for the festival developed organically when on a Memorial Day weekend two years ago, more than 10,000 people showed up to dedicate a Vietnam Veterans Rememberance Wall, a half-scale replica of the national memorial in Washington. The labor to build the wall was donated by local trade unions, and local veterans groups raised $120,000 to pay for the black-granite slabs where the names of the 58,000 soldiers killed in Vietnam are carved.

"We began then to think about what would be a fitting tribute to continue to honor our brave men and women who are serving in our military, those who served our country so valiantly in the past, and our first responders, police, firemen, EMTs," Siciliano said. "We wanted it to also be something that would be a fun, family event for everyone to enjoy."

Diane McGraw, widow of Phillies great Tug McGraw and president of McGraw Productions, which produced the event, said she thought the festivities would hit a note with service personnel and the public alike.

"We feel this incredible mix of music, talent, and games will cap off an unforgettable weekend that balances fun, sun, great food, and music with sincere and heartfelt recognition of the sacrifices made by our military and their families," McGraw said.

Veterans and their families were offered special discounts at hotels and motels, restaurants, and shops. Most of the activities were free, but McGraw said activities that required a ticket, like a concert Sunday night with prices starting at $25 per person, were kept affordable for families.

The weekend kicked off with the Coast Guard recruit graduation Friday morning and 70 new "Coasties" who just completed boot camp at Training Center Cape May. A motorcycle caravan of hundreds of bike-enthusiast veterans arrived Friday, and events culminated with a red, white, and blue fireworks display on the first evening.

Anchored on the beach near the Wildwoods Convention Center, Saturday’s events featured family beach games sponsored by Ford Motor Co., a daylong series of soccer matches, softball games, Frisbee throws, an obstacle course, and a treasure hunt.

A "Taste of the Wildwoods" food and music festival-within-a-festival began Saturday and continues through 3 p.m. Sunday across Ocean Avenue at Fox Park. It included an interactive military display center that featured various weapons and equipment.

"I think it’s important for us to be able to show the general public what we do and why it’s important for our country’s defense," said Army Sgt. First Class David Lange, who with fellow soldiers displayed two of his Fort Dix unit’s humvees.

A "Celebration of Heroes Military Procession and Remembrance Ceremony," with active military personnel, veterans, celebrities, and marching bands, is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday along Ocean Avenue in the vicinity of the Vietnam veterans memorial.

One of the highlights of the celebration is a USO-style variety show and headliner concert scheduled to begin at 8 p.m. Sunday night at the Wildwoods Convention Center’s Oceanfront Arena, starring former Saturday Night Live cast member Joe Piscopo and his 17-piece orchestra. The show will also feature Grammy winner Lee Greenwood, Michael Longoria, who played Frankie Valli in the original cast of the Broadway show Jersey Boys, Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler, and American Idol finalists Michael Sarver and Haley Scarnato.

One of the more popular activities Saturday — which will be offered again Sunday between noon and 2 p.m. — was the Comcast Connect Military Call Center and Mail Call, which allowed attendees to Skype with active-duty troops at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. With a three-second delay over the many miles, the exchanges — between strangers in the oddly distant yet intimate Skype-osphere — were poignant and sometimes comical.

The call center was set up in a storefront along the boardwalk. But next year, organizers want to put it at center stage with a big screen and loudspeakers so everyone can see and hear the exchanges, said John Eckel of McGraw Productions.

"I think it’s important for us to take any opportunity we have to thank our troops," Steve Kimler of Cape May said after Skyping with a group of Marines at Leatherneck.

Kimler asked the men and women how long they had been deployed and when they would be coming home. They wanted to know how the beach looked in Jersey.

"We hope you get out of there soon. ... We all miss you and want you back. Pretty soon, you’ll be back enjoying the beach, too," Kimler told them. "In the meantime, thanks for keeping it safe for us all to enjoy."

Contact Jacqueline L. Urgo at 609-652-8382 or jurgo@phillynews.com. Read the Jersey Shore blog "Downashore" at www.philly.com/Downashore.

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