After a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the San Diego Veterans Day Parade returned to the Embarcadero in 2023, and the USS Midway Museum was at the helm. More than 90 entrants participated in the parade, ranging from marching bands, floats, ceremonial vehicles and marching units from veterans organizations, military commands, local businesses, and community service and civic groups. 

Midway formed a coalition of representatives from the city and county, active-duty military commands, and veteran support organizations to continue the tradition of holding this tribute parade in America’s Finest City.

“The San Diego Veterans Day Parade is more than a parade, it’s a living tribute for all San Diegans who’ve served our country in uniform,” said Mayor Todd Gloria, the parade’s grand marshal. “San Diego is a proud military town, and I am always thrilled to see such enthusiasm and support for our veterans and servicemembers. I want to thank the USS Midway Museum and all the volunteers who helped make the parade’s return a success, and I look forward to seeing this annual tradition continue to flourish in the years ahead.”

San Diego County boasts one of the largest veteran populations in the United States, with more than 200,000 former and retired military members living and working in the county. While this year’s parade honored all those who have worn the uniform of the nation, it placed a special emphasis on several important military milestone anniversaries that date back 100 years. 

Marine Corps Band San Diego marching smartly.
The San Diego Veterans Day Parade returned after a three-year hiatus.

“It’s just important to take the opportunity to step back and honor the legacy that lies before us because it hasn’t always been that way,” said Chief Warrant Officer Randel Matzinger, who led Marine Corps Band San Diego’s participation in the parade. “We’re taking the opportunity to express our gratitude for the service. It’s important.”

As in previous parades, several military heroes, past and present, were honored. This included the grand marshals who served as representatives of last year’s major military anniversaries.

“Our military veterans have given so much to this country that it would be a crime to not publicly thank them for their service and sacrifices,” said David Koontz, Midway’s marketing director and parade chair. “With so many important military anniversaries taking place in 2023, we also felt it was critical to recognize veterans in the parade who had direct connections to those important events.”

Twin brothers and retired Marine Corps gunnery sergeants, Gary and Larry Soper, represented all Vietnam War veterans as the grand marshals for the 50th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War. Both received Purple Hearts for their courageous actions and wounds suffered in combat during the war.

“When we got back, nobody cared about us at all,” said Gary, who served 22 years in the Marine Corps. “We were honored to be the grand marshal for all Vietnam veterans. Larry and I will never forget it. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”

Jack Ensch, a Navy F-4 Phantom naval aviator flying from the USS Midway (CV-41), was shot down on his 285th combat mission over Vietnam in August 1972. He remained a prisoner of war (POW) until his release from Hanoi on March 29, 1973. Jack served as the grand marshal representing the 50th anniversary of the return of the Vietnam War POWs.

“I felt honored when asked to represent my fellow Vietnam War POWs in the Veterans Day Parade,” said Jack, a retired Navy captain who served in the Navy for 30 years. “As a group, we POWs feel privileged to have served our country and are proud to have returned with honor after performing our duty under very arduous conditions. The Veterans Day Parade came back better than ever and the USS Midway Museum deserves to be commended for re-establishing this important San Diego tradition.”

It wasn’t until 1973 that women were finally allowed to join the male-dominated arena of naval aviation. Joellen Oslund, who would become the Navy’s first female helicopter pilot, was the parade’s grand marshal on behalf of the 50th anniversary of women in naval aviation.

“It was a great privilege to represent not only women in naval aviation, but all women veterans, and it was a thrill to see the positive crowd response to my presence,” said Joellen, who retired as a Navy captain and was inducted into the Women in Aviation International Pioneer Hall of Fame in 2017. “I could not have imagined an honor like this when I received my Navy wings 50 years ago. I participated in the Rose Parade in Pasadena in 2014 and I think this parade was just as well run. I really enjoyed the whole experience.”

More than 6,000 American servicemembers died in combat during the battles for Heartbreak Ridge and Bloody Ridge on the Korean peninsula in late 1951. George Sousa, an Army corporal, was the only member of his unit to survive, although he was seriously wounded. The Purple Heart recipient represented all Korean War veterans on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War.

“I have received many honors over the years, but this has got to be the greatest honor of my life,” said George, who graduated from Pt. Loma High School in 1948. “I feel very privileged to have represented my comrades of all military branches. It was an incredible event and I’m grateful to have been a part of it.”

The U.S. Navy accepted its first helicopter in late 1943 during World War II.  A quarter century later, Gary Ely would be flying into harm’s way along the Mekong River as a door gunner in a UH-1 Huey during the war in Vietnam. Gary, who was the grand marshal honoring the 80th anniversary of naval helicopter aviation, flew nearly 700 combat missions in Southeast Asia.

The USS Midway Museum float took center stage in the parade.
More than 90 entrants participated in the parade including the Scripps-Miramar Saddlebred Horses.

“I really enjoyed greeting the kids along the way during the parade,” said Gary, who spent 18 months in Vietnam as a member of Navy Helicopter Attack (Light) Squadron 3 (HAL-3). “I also saw a couple of my HAL-3 shipmates enroute as well. It turned out to be a good time.”

In August 1923, Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD), San Diego began training young Marines. Over the past century, more than 1.5 million Marine recruits have completed their basic training in San Diego. The depot’s history is one of resilience, adaptation and dedication to producing highly-skilled and disciplined Marines. The grand marshal for MCRD’s 100th anniversary was its commanding general, Brig. Gen. James Ryans.

“It was a great honor to represent the Marine Corps, MCRD San Diego and Western Recruiting Region in this year’s parade,” said Brig. Gen. Ryans, who has been serving in the Marine Corps for 35 years and is the recipient of the Bronze Star. “Veterans Day is a time to honor and pay tribute to the brave men and women who served in our armed forces and to express our gratitude for their great service to our country. It was incredible to see and interact with so many people who share such a strong bond with our military.”

The San Diego Veterans Day Parade, which was proudly sponsored by Verizon, began in 1987 and continues to be the largest parade on the West Coast that salutes military veterans. For military veterans living in San Diego, a staunch Navy and Marine Corps town, remembering the service and sacrifice of those who have worn the uniform of the nation is important.

“The parade was marvelous,” said Ray Flores, a Marine Corps veteran who participated in the parade. “I’m just so thankful that everybody could come out and enjoy the day, and thank all those who have served.”

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