Fred Di Fabio, president of the Long Island Air Force Association, is a Vietnam veteran, whose eight years’ of military service in the United States Air Force included a tour of duty in Southeast Asia as a heavy equipment operator reclaiming downed aircraft with the Fifth Air Force Mobility Team. Today, he is still actively serving his country, working tirelessly to maintain the annual tradition of honoring Pearl Harbor veterans, and all veterans, at the Dropping of the Roses Pearl Harbor Memorial Ceremony, keeping the memory of their service alive.
The Dropping of the Roses Pearl Harbor Memorial Ceremony was started in 1970 by the late Joseph Stanley Hydrusko, to honor his fallen comrades. Hydrusko saved numerous wounded and dying men on December 7, 1941 and was a candidate for the Congressional Medal of Honor. “When it began, the event was very low-key”, said Di Fabio in a recent interview. “The ground ceremony lasted only about five minutes, then the aircraft would take off to fly over the Statue of Liberty and drop roses—one to commemorate each year since Pearl Harbor”.
After Hydrusko’s untimely death in a cockpit fire in 1983, Mort Arken, the owner and president of the GEICO Skytypers (a Long Island-based squadron of six vintage WWII airplanes performing at select air shows across the U. S.), who flew his aircraft with Hydrusko each year in the ceremony, continued the tradition. In 1994, when Arken invited the Long Island Air Force Association to participate in the event, Di Fabio took over as event director and has been coordinating and orchestrating it every year since that time.
Today, with as many as 1500 people in attendance and receiving national media attention, the Dropping of the Roses Ceremony, hosted by Republic Airport and the American Airpower Museum in Farmingdale, has come a long way since 1970.
Each year as many of the Pearl Harbor survivors as possible are in attendance as honored guests at the event. “What we are doing here is honoring those who served and the memory of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor”, Di Fabio reflected. “Last year we had five survivors attend, and this year we expect the same number again.”
Over the years, personnel from every branch and every rank of the military have been in attendance at the ceremony, including Air Force commanders, Navy admirals, and Army generals. Marine detachments, Civil Air Patrol squadrons, and many veterans groups, including the Vietnam Veterans of America and the Suffolk Police Veterans Association, have all been represented there; and every year the Massapequa High School Band is on hand, in full dress uniform, to honor the veterans as they proudly perform traditional military songs.
Political leaders from lieutenant governors to senators and congressmen are also in regular attendance at the event. “Every year I receive either a proclamation or a letter from the President of the United States, Di Fabio commented. “One year we received a call from President George Bush’s office while we were on the podium, and Laura Bush wished us well.”
Beginning in October each year, Di Fabio, together with AFA Long Island Chapter Secretary, Cathy Ward, and a team of volunteers, creates and sends out hundreds of letters, flyers, and faxes to invite visitors and honored guests to the memorial ceremony. Letters and invitations are sent to the President, governors, senators, and scores of other elected officials. In addition, flyers and invitations are sent to three hundred separate veteran’s organizations on Long Island; and over three hundred press releases are transmitted, via fax, to news media organizations from New York City to Montauk. “Every news media in print, television, and radio, gets a flyer and a press release”, Di Fabio said.
Each year, in true boardroom fashion, Di Fabio also conducts a meeting at the Republic Airport Department of Transportation office in Farmingdale with those involved in producing and coordinating the event—members of the Long Island Air Force Association, the director and several key managers of Republic Airport, American Airpower Museum personnel, a representative from Sheltair Aviation, GEICO Skytypers personnel, and military officers.
Working from a comprehensive checklist, Di Fabio thoroughly covers every aspect of the ceremony—from positioning the aircraft and moving static museum displays to securing the stage and chairs, from sequencing the ground ceremony to providing handicapped accommodations, and from securing a helicopter to film the event to ensuring that coffee will be provided—no detail is overlooked. “Just like running a local government, it takes a multitude of people to make this ceremony a success. Everyone has a role, and we all work together; and together we make a team”, Di Fabio said.
Working in conjunction with Republic Airport officials, The GEICO Skytypers are responsible for securing the required clearances with the Department of Defense. “We are flying vintage WWII aircraft over the Statue of Liberty, which is a no fly zone”, Di Fabio said. “We are dropping roses, and anything that drops out of an airplane is a problem. They have to be aware of who we are, how many planes will be flying, and who will be flying them.” In addition, the Skytypers must coordinate with the New York City and Nassau County Police Departments and are also in charge of the aircraft, flight operations, and safety.
The Air Force Association is responsible for all aspects of the ground ceremony: selecting and securing a master of ceremonies and guest speakers, political involvement, news media coverage, displays, and flowers.
Since they alone are authorized to handle them, American Air Power Museum personnel are in charge of clearing the display aircraft out of the museum hangar where the ground portion of the ceremony is held. They are also responsible for displaying the aircraft, parking, and shelter if the event is conducted outdoors.
Republic airport is charged with the responsibility of the overall security of the operation—all of the parking, all of the access areas are secured. Fences are set up to define the flight line, and there is security beyond them as well.
“Controlled chaos” is what Di Fabio termed the morning of the ceremony. He explained that at 8:00 a.m. museum personnel move all of the aircraft outside of the hangar. Then Di Fabio and volunteers from the Air Force Association and the Air Power Museum set up the stage, chairs, podium, and display areas for the event (this year, volunteers from Civil Air Patrol Squadron 8 will also be on hand to assist with the set up and security). “This all happens between 8:00 a.m. and 10:00 a.m. For two hours we transform the place. Everyone works so hard”, Di Fabio commented.
In addition to the frenzy of setting up in such a short time, each year Di Fabio and his volunteers have to ready themselves for the unexpected. “I invite a multitude of people from the President down, Di Fabio explained. “I might get a call, and someone will say, ‘Fred the Governor is at the front desk, or Senator Schumer, or Senator Gillibrand is here’”, Di Fabio explained. Then he and his volunteers have to scramble to rearrange, quickly designating a chair for the honored guest and hurriedly write him or her into the program so that it flows without interruption. “Sometimes we find out, last minute, we don’t’ have an aircraft for whatever reason—it’s too cold out—these rotary engines won’t start in cold weather.” “It’s a lot of work, a lot of effort; but we love it”, Di Fabio commented.
December 7, 2011 will mark the 70th anniversary of Pearl Harbor. This year following the ground portion of the Dropping of the Roses Ceremony, 70 American Beauty Roses, together with one white rose commemorating 9-11, will be dropped over the Statue of Liberty from vintage WWII aircraft as they, flying in fitting formation, honor those whose sacrifice and service have made it possible for her to so enduringly and triumphantly raise her emblazoned torch, heralding her jubilant and costly proclamation of liberty and justice for all.
Thanks to the efforts of Di Fabio and all of the many people who work so tirelessly with him, who cannot forget, we, and the generations who follow us, will never forget all those who have so bravely served our nation and given their lives to protect and preserve our cherished freedom and democracy.
The “Dropping of the Roses” Pearl Harbor 70th Anniversary Memorial Ceremony will be held on Wednesday, December 7, 2011 at 10:30 a.m. at the
American Airpower Museum
1230 New Highway, Farmingdale, New York 11735
(at Republic Airport)
ALL ARE WELCOME TO ATTEND
This Article was Written by Vickie Moller-Pepe.
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