U.S. WAR VETERANS RETURN TO SAIPAN

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By Marconi Calindas

SAIPAN, CNMI (Saipan Tribune, Nov. 10) – Three World War II veterans found themselves back on Saipan this week and are impressed at how far the islands have come from the devastation wrought by the Battle of Saipan in 1944.

The three U.S. Navy war veterans-Charles Merriam, John Nunemaker, and Robert Wilch-are on the island in time for the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Veterans Day Memorial Service tomorrow.

The three paid a courtesy visit to the Office of the Governor yesterday morning and acting Gov. Timothy Villagomez was there to welcome them. Villagomez later presented certificates of appreciation to the three veterans.

Military Veterans Affairs Office executive officer Martin Sablan and veteran Jerry Facey facilitated the visit.

Nunemaker, now 85, first came to Saipan on June 15, 1944. This time, he flew here from Spokane, Washington, with his wife Carolyn. He said he never thought that he would be back on the island after 61 years.

"Saipan is a beautiful place," he said, adding that the island now is nothing like what he was expecting when they landed Sunday. "It was a primitive place before where rubble and devastation was scattered all around the island and it was full of battle smoke. I can't believe it's the same place."

Nunemaker said he and his wife have fallen in love with the island so much that they wouldn't want to leave yet.

Wilch, who also first set foot on Saipan in 1944, has been to Saipan several times already. This is the fourth time for him and his wife, Sandra, to visit the island. Last year, the couple was here with other veterans and their families.

"We love this place," Wilch said, adding that the 25-hour trip from Milwaukee has been worth it.

Merriam, 82, is the only one among the three who witnessed the Japanese surrender on the island.

He flew to Saipan with his son, Brian, and daughter, Sondra, from upstate Burnthill, New York. He said he was elated to find out how Saipan has been restored.

"It's been nice to have seen that everything is restored. It's quite a sentimental trip," he said.

Merriam added that going back to Saipan after 60 years brought back a lot of memories. "I hope the people won't go through what we had to go through," he said.

Diane Houriet, daughter of Robert and Sandra Wilch, said she is glad to have tagged along with her parents. It's her first time to be on the island.

"I wanted to see where Bob went during the war," she said. Now that she is on the island, everything that she has heard about and read from textbooks are falling into place.

The three veterans also met with the late Guy Gabaldon's son, Yoshi, Wednesday night. Gabaldon, known as the Pied Piper of Saipan, convinced more than 1,500 Japanese to surrender to American forces during World War II.

Merriam flew to Tokyo yesterday, while Wilch and Nunemaker are staying to grace the Veterans' Day ceremony at the Veterans' Cemetery in Marpi.

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