WWII vet leads Canoga Park's Memorial Day parade

WWII vet leads Canoga Park's Memorial Day parade
Retired Capt. Bill Ratner, left, with Lillian and Leonard Berwager lay a wreath Monday for all service members from Canoga Park High School who died in the service. (Kirk McKoy, Los Angeles Times)

Monday morning brought cloudy weather to Canoga Park, but the mood was anything but gloomy at the neighborhood's 26th annual Memorial Day parade, where crowds honored the region's fallen military heroes — setting up lawn chairs along Sherman Way and waving flags.

The event is a blend of celebration and solemnity with flyovers, prancing horses and marching bands that attracts about 30,000 spectators each year. It was but one of many Memorial Day observances in the Southland, including ceremonies in San Pedro, Inglewood, Riverside and Sylmar.


Memorial Day has been observed in the United States since the Civil War, when Maj. Gen. John A. Logan, who headed a Union veterans' group, called on Americans to commemorate their war dead each May 30, a time of year when flowers would be in bloom around the country.

The Canoga Park parade's grand marshal this year was Art Sherman, 94, of Encino, a World War II veteran and leader of Wings Over Wendy's, an organization that brings veterans and others together every Monday at a Wendy's restaurant in West Hills to remember their war experiences.

Waiting for the parade to begin and dressed in a khaki military uniform, Sherman said the parade offered a chance to teach youngsters with little knowledge of history — some of whom mistakenly talk about "W-W-Eleven," he said — about the sacrifices veterans have made.

Shortly after Sherman was injured during a bombing mission over Italy, his best friend in the service, a Minnesota native named Archie Stein, was killed in a raid on Ploiesti, in Romania.

The back-to-back traumas changed him.

"For the rest of the war I didn't get too friendly with people," he said.

Parade-goers began staking out viewing positions hours before the event began. Children blew bubbles and waved flags; street vendors hawked snacks and souvenirs.

Sherman Oaks resident Virginia Sandoval sat near the head of the parade, decked out in patriotic sunglasses and waving a homemade sign offering thanks to service members. She said she was a regular at the event.

"I always come out to honor the people who have served," she said. "It's the least we can do." She added that she had several nephews who served in the military and all had returned home.

Sitting nearby, Veronica Flores of Canoga Park had come to pay respects to fallen friends of her husband, a Marine veteran who served three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Her 6-year-old daughter, Natalia, sat alongside her, waving an American flag and waiting for the right moment to start blowing bubbles.

Lillian and Leonard Berwager came to honor their daughter Laura Jeanne Berwager, a Navy pilot and Canoga Park High School graduate who was killed in a helicopter accident during a 2007 training mission near San Clemente Island.

"She died doing what she loved, and now she's flying even higher," Lillian Berwager said.

During opening ceremonies before the parade, the Berwagers joined Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks), City Councilmen Mitchell Englander and Bob Blumenfield and other officials to lay a ceremonial wreath for service members killed in the line of duty.


"It really puts a face on the people who have lost family members," Englander said. "The worst thing is to lose a child, but they're honored that she died fighting for the country. That's what today is about."

The group finished laying the wreath, and the Berwagers walked back to their seats, tears in their eyes.

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