Missouri Gov. Mike Parson spoke Saturday to a group of veterans and motorcycle enthusiasts during a special event at Missouri’s National Veterans Memorial in Perryville.
The event, dubbed the first annual Missouri Vietnam Wall Run, was sponsored by the Veterans in Defense of Liberty and Liberty Riders of America, and was timed to coincide with National POW/MIA Recognition Day last Friday and the seventh annual Bikers on the Square event in Perryville, which had been rescheduled from June.
“I’ll tell you this much,” said Parson, “anytime people serve in the military —the husbands, the wives, the mothers, the fathers — we should always support them, 110 percent. Every day, we should support the armed forces.”
Event organizer Terry Willey said he was pleased with the participation at the event.
“We had about 500 bikes,” said Willey. “We had more than that were involved. We didn’t really get an official number.”
Saturday’s ride had two origin points, one in Willey’s hometown of Springfield and the other in St. Louis. The two groups met up and merged in Fredericktown before continuing on to Perryville. Willey said more riders joined them on the way, resulting in a procession several miles long traveling across the state.
“It was a pretty impressive sight,” Willey said. “Once we joined together, we were five, six, seven miles long, as far as I could see on the straightaways.”
Parson, who was sworn in as governor after the resignation of Eric Greitens last year, has been a frequent visitor to the memorial site, which features a full-sized, exact replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. and held its official grand opening earlier this year.
“I wouldn’t be up here today if I hadn’t served my country,” said Parson, an Army veteran and former sheriff. “I firmly believe that. That’s kind of what got me on the right track, frankly, as a young man.”
Parson went on to praise Perryville and its residents.
“Some of you may be here for the first time,” Parson said, “but you’ll never find a better town in the state of Missouri than Perryville, when it comes to being a patriotic town that supports the military.”
Parson’s comments came as part of a special ceremony to honor servicemen that are still unaccounted for as well as recognizing former POWs and all Vietnam veterans.
In addition to Parson, visitors heard from Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Maj. Gen. James Livingston, USMC (ret.); and former POW Charles Crandell, a Navy veteran who served aboard the USS Pueblo in 1968.
“I stand here and look behind me and there’s a cornfield,” said Livingston. “I think about this country. From the Revolutionary War to today. This setting, this monument, reminds us who we are. You folks are very special people.”
Livingston was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions on May 2, 1968, in the Battle of Dai Do.
Then a captain in command of Company E, 2nd Battalion, 4th Marines, Livingston led a successful assault on the heavily fortified village.
Wounded three times while leading the assault, Livingston refused to be evacuated until he was assured of the safety of his men.
Crandell spoke only briefly, saying he was happy to attend.
“Thank God for America or I wouldn’t be here,” Crandell said. “If you ever want to see what life’s really like, spend about 11 months with the idiots in North Korea.”
Crandell, a Navy Radioman Third Class, was captured on Jan. 23, 1968, along with 81 other surviving crewmen when the U.S.S. Pueblo was boarded by North Korean forces in international waters and was held as a prisoner of war in North Korea until his release on Dec. 23, 1968.
The Pueblo, a Banner-class environmental research ship, attached to Navy intelligence as a spy ship, remains a commissioned vessel of the United States Navy and is the only ship of the U.S. Navy currently being held captive. It is on public display in North Korea despite continuing diplomatic efforts to secure its return.
Other guests included representatives from Sen. Roy Blunt and Congressman Jason Smith’s staff, along with Vietnam veteran and MNVM founder and board member Jim Eddleman of Perryville, and NFL Hall of Famer and former St. Louis Cardinals tight end Jackie Smith, who sang the national anthem.
An avowed fan of Perryville, Willey said that the Bikers on the Square event provided an extra incentive for those who made the trip.
“You can’t say enough about those guys,” Willey said. “They put on one heck of a gig up there.”
As part of the annual rally, BOTS organizers encouraged residents to line the streets of the square with American flags when the riders came through town on their way to the memorial and added a special event to recognize veterans later in the evening, holding a floating lantern release after dark on Perryville’s downtown square.
BOTS committee member Robynne Duvall said her event was happy to welcome the riders from the Wall Run.
“We had a great turnout,” Duvall said. “Of course, Mother Nature I don’t think could have been any nicer Saturday. I was exceptionally proud of our community coming together. We had every flag that we could get our hands on up there and every flag was taken care of and people were still asking for more. I loved seeing all those people holding flags around the square when they came through.”
If Willey has his way, Duvall and the rest of Perryville will get to see that sight again.
“We’ll be back next year,” Willey said. “This week, we start for next year. “We start the planning process and it’s going to be bigger and better. We’ve got the first one out the way now we can just go and get bigger.”