ATLANTIC CITY — Torrential rains gave way to a gentle sun as the second annual Atlantic City Salutes the Armed Forces Parade started to roll Wednesday evening.
And though it was about a half-hour behind schedule, the combination of good weather and boisterous crowds led to a celebratory atmosphere on the Boardwalk.
“It even stopped raining,” said Pinky Kravitz, The Press of Atlantic City columnist and WOND radio host who oversaw the parade from the reviewing stand in front of Boardwalk Hall — and who promised good weather for this year’s event, after last year’s inaugural parade went forward under a downpour. “You know they’re on our side when the rain stopped, and we fulfilled our promise.”
The parade kicked off just before 7 p.m. with an escort of about 50 motorcycles, police and veterans groups alike, ahead of a riderless horse honoring Tech. Sgt. Harold Brown, the first African-American from Atlantic City killed in World War II.
Afterward came a succession of bands, floats, classic cars and rolling chairs, many of which were modes of transport for the dozens of veterans who were honored in the parade — from Iraq war veterans to Bill French, the 92-year-old veteran from Hamilton Township who was recently honored with a Congressional Gold Medal for his service with the Montford Point Marines in World War II.
“I didn’t know I’d be in the parade until the last minute,” French said. “I’m really enjoying it so far.”
One of the six grand marshals from each armed service, Navy Rear Admiral Mark Buzby, had the honor of parading past the hotel in which he grew up — the Dennis, now part of Bally’s.
“That was a great place to grow up as a kid,” Buzby said before the parade. “It was fun to have a 500-room hotel to run around in.”
Buzby’s father, Walter J. Buzby II, was in the Navy, and Buzby followed in his footsteps after graduating from the Merchant Marine Academy — but growing up in Atlantic City also played a role, he said.
“I grew up around water,” he said. “Looking out at water all my life, I was kind of drawn to it.”
As Buzby passed the former Dennis Hotel, run by his family for years, paradegoer Ray Osbeck, of Linwood, shouted out, “Hey, that’s your hotel.”
“Go, Navy,” Buzby said back, just as he did when a teenager in a backward cap saluted him and said, “God Bless America.”
Buzby’s mother, Aino, and brother, David, still live in Linwood, and he was thrilled to return to honor the nation’s servicemen and women in his hometown.
“I’ll have the Naval Academy Band nearby and the USS New Jersey replica astern,” he said beforehand. “I’m very happy to have such naval force on the Boardwalk. ... Atlantic City has had a long tradition of supporting the military going back to Camp Boardwalk in the 1940s. It’s keeping in Atlantic City’s character, and I’m very, very proud that they’re doing this. I’m obviously very pleased at the support given.”
Among those supporters was Milt Gray, a Korean War veteran from Galloway Township, who made sure to stop and shake French’s hand as his car drove by Boardwalk Hall.
“I thanked him for serving,” said Gray, who had read about French’s medal in The Press of Atlantic City. “It took a long time for him to be recognized. It’s a real honor to meet that gentleman.”
Atlantic County Sheriff Frank Balles shot T-shirts from a cannon atop a converted Hummer tricked out by the National Sheriff’s Associations after being damaged by an IED in Iraq, while the U.S. Naval Academy Band marched its tubas the two miles from start to finish.
There was even Smokey Bear, Underdog, and “Uncle Sam” — “The real one!” as one overeager father told his daughter.
“We were unable to make it last year,” said Toni Garnett, of Brigantine, who had a seat at the very beginning in front of the Trump Taj Mahal. “We heard it was special and it would be more so this year, and that’s why we came. ... I think it’s a wonderful concept.
After the tail end of the parade passed Boardwalk Hall, Atlantic City resident Barbara Byard said that it had been the first time she had even been up on the Boardwalk “since the Sands closed.”
“To see all those vets and whatnot, it really made you feel good,” Byard said.
Even some Canadians got in on the action, with Montreal residents Robert and Francine Marquis waving American flags, and Toronto residents Mike and Nina Bois Berd coming away “very impressed” with how paradegoers reacted.
“The thing that impressed me most was seeing the crowd chanting when service people came through,” Bois Berd said.
Buzby, who had watched the end of the parade from the reviewing stand, told the crowd that “When Pinky (Kravitz) does something, he does it big. ... It’s a great event, great weather, and it doesn’t get any better than this.”
As for the future? Said Bernie Friedenberg, of Margate, former commander of Jewish War Veterans Chapter 39: “Well, we did (the parade) last year, and, God willing, we’ll do it next year. It’s a wonderful thing.”
Contact Steven Lemongello:
Follow Steven Lemongello on Twitter @SteveLemongello