By Michael P. Walsh
Special to the Voice
Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 9422 Cmdr. Freddy Jackson will lead the Memorial Day parade as grand marshal when it steps off at 10:30 a.m. Monday.
Jackson was originally selected to serve at the helm of last year’s parade, but it was canceled by rain.
To prevent a similar unforeseen occurrence, organizers said this year’s parade — and future Memorial Day parades — is being held rain or shine.
Jackson, now a year older at 72, will guide the 50-unit procession of veterans, dignitaries and bands along the 1.5-mile parade course, which begins at Captain Thomas Boulevard and flows up Campbell Avenue to Center Street.
An Army veteran who served in Colorado and Korea in 1963-66 during the Vietnam War era, he embraced the honor — again — with typical grace and humility.
“To me, it is such an honor to even have been considered to be the grand marshal,” Jackson said. “It will be the highlight of my life, and it is something I will never forget. I am proud to be the grand marshal for the city of West Haven.”
Jackson was tapped by the West Haven Veterans Council, which helps the city organize the annual parade, for his years of service to the Army, his fellow vets and his community, the latter of which is perhaps the cornerstone of the qualifications for grand marshal, council President Dave Ricci said.
Jackson’s contributions to the Veterans Council, the governing body of the city’s veterans organizations, are duly noted.
He is a longtime member of Hughson-Miller Post 71 of the American Legion and served as commander in the early ’90s.
He has also volunteered for years at the West Haven Veterans Affairs Hospital and is a former girls softball coach.
This year’s edition of southern Connecticut’s oldest and largest parade of its kind will feature three marching divisions and a military division, as well as special accommodations for disabled veterans.
The procession will include an eight-seat golf cart carrying former grand marshals that is bedecked with a star gracing the names of those deceased. Other veterans will ride on a float.
“On Memorial Day and every day, we honor the selfless men and women in uniform who defended the promise of America,” Mayor Edward M. O’Brien said. “Upholding the liberties we so profoundly cherish, our nation is grateful for the service and sacrifice of our brave patriots and their invaluable contributions to preserving and protecting the United States. Freddy Jackson’s wholehearted devotion to his country and community embodies the noble qualities of the grand marshal.”
Jackson, the youngest of five siblings, was born and raised in Opp, Alabama, a small town 19 miles from the Florida Panhandle.
He excelled in academics and athletics at Ralph Bunche High School, a county high school in Andalusia, Alabama. A standout linebacker, he played on the school’s undefeated state championship football team in 1960.
In June 1963, less than two weeks after graduation, Jackson joined the Army at age 18 and completed basic training eight weeks later at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
He was assigned to the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, and served as a supply clerk.
After amphibious and extreme weather training in preparation for Korea, Jackson was stationed at Camp Hovey, South Korea, where he guarded the Demilitarized Zone, which divides North and South Korea.
“We had some scary nights guarding the DMZ, even a scary day when there was gunfire,” said Jackson, who was a radarman in the 7th Infantry Division on the Korean Peninsula.
The North, officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the South, officially the Republic of Korea, have been in a technical state of war for decades.
Jackson praised his three years in the Army.
“I do not have one regret of not going to college,” said Jackson, who acknowledged that he could have gone, but “we did not have a lot growing up.”
“In the Army,” he said, “I had the opportunity to go to Alaska, Tokyo and Korea and meet many good people who inspired me.”
Jackson was honorably discharged as a specialist E-5 in April 1966.
On Aug. 1, 1966, Jackson and his childhood sweetheart, the former Miriam Silas, were married by a justice of the peace in Samson, Alabama.
The couple came to West Haven in 1968 after Jackson visited his brother, Nathaniel Jackson, who lived in the city at the time.
“I had no intention of staying, but I liked West Haven,” Freddy Jackson said.
Jackson immediately found work as a custodian at the then-headquarters of the New Haven Register on Orange Street in the Elm City.
About a month later, he pursued an employment opportunity at Detroit Steel Co. on State Street in Hamden. For the next 21 years, until the company shuttered in 1989, he worked in shipping and also cleaned steel before it was rolled and cut into sizes.
For the past 28 years, Jackson has held various custodial jobs at the Robert N. Giaimo Federal Building on Court Street in New Haven.
He and his wife live on York Street in West Haven and have two grown daughters, Tiffany and Joya, and eight grandchildren.
Jackson stays active directing the affairs of the city’s VFW post, which was established in 1929 and is headquartered at 233 Spring St.
The parade will commence with a flyover by a World War II AT-6 Texan. Jackson will steer the procession from a convertible flanked by the West Haven Police Color Guard.
The 90-minute event, in memory of the deceased members of the U.S. armed forces of all wars, will showcase the city’s array of veterans groups.
The procession will consist of five marching bands: Bailey Middle School, Carrigan Intermediate School, the New Haven County Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes and Drums, the Stylettes Drill Team and Drum Corps, and West Haven High School.
It will also spotlight the traditional contingent of youth organizations and sports leagues, dance and Scout troupes, fraternal organizations and service clubs, local and state leaders, police officers and firefighters.