Honoring those who served, Petaluma parade salutes Veterans Day

As Don Windy Andresen rode along 4th Street in Petaluma shortly after 1 p.m. Monday, he passed the turn-off on Western Avenue he would often take on his way home from school. More than 75 years later, the 93-year-old Navy veteran returned to familiar streets to participate in his hometown’s annual Veterans Day Parade for the first time, riding in a vintage firetruck and surrounded by applauding spectators.

The self-described “Petaluma Boy” served as a Navy radioman in WWII from 1944 to 1945.

“I went in (to the Navy) on my 18th birthday in ‘44, two weeks out of high school,” Andresen said. “As did all my male classmates, we all went in. We were all very patriotic.”

The Petaluma Veterans Day Parade, in its 33rd year, is often billed as one of the largest in Northern California. This year welcomed more than 200 individual and group parade entries of veterans, local service groups, county first responders and government officials.

Those celebrated inched along the four-block route in rides as varied as military vehicles, fire engines, vintage cars, motorcycles and even a circus bicycle. Overhead, five different aircraft competed for the crowd’s attention in repeated low-altitude flyover displays.

Grand Marshal Chris O’Brien, a Petaluma resident, was the first United States Coast Guard veteran to lead the festivities.

“Today is as much about the local people and the local connection and honoring their service today, as it is recognizing the larger scope of this day,” O’Brien said.

The retired Lieutenant led the parade, riding alongside his wife and two young children. His father-in-law, retired Coast Guard veteran Tom Curran, and grandfather-in-law, WWII veteran Denny Curran, were among the thousands who lined downtown Petaluma streets.

The celebration routinely draws tens of thousands of spectators each year, however, this year’s turnout was noticeably smaller than prior celebrations.

Petaluma Police Lieutenant Brian Miller said the parade’s turnout was about half of the 45,000 they expected. Unlike the previous two years, 2019’s holiday falls on a weekday instead of a weekend, possibly contributing to the lower numbers.

Nine California fire companies also participated, an increase from past years and a continuation of honoring first responders in the wake of multiple destructive wildfires in the county. Crowds cheered in appreciation at the Cal Fire vehicles along the route, the scars of this year’s Kincade Fire still fresh in many minds.

Organizer Steven Kemmerle worked up to the last minute of the parade to ensure all local veterans and first responders had a place in the procession if they wanted one, including finding a seat for three WWII veterans introduced to him hours before the 1 p.m. start time.

“I’ve been doing this for 15 years now, I’m 75 years old,” Kemmerle said. “I think I’ve been organizing this parade longer than any job I’ve worked.”

A Vietnam War vetera, Kemmerle said the parade is important because it gives people an opportunity to learn more about veterans’ sacrifices and celebrate those that served.

For many in Petaluma and nearby cities, the annual parade is a family tradition, drawing three or more generations to shaded spots in lawn chairs and on sidewalk curbs.

Married couple Pam and Rick Klarkowski said they’ve lost count of how many years they’ve attended the parade. They first attended more than 30 years ago when their sons were toddlers. This year, the Klarkowskis stood alongside their now-adult son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson to watch the procession.

Rick Klarkowski’s father, Major Frank G. Klarkowski, served in both WWII and the Korean War, from 1940 to 1962.

“We love coming to this parade, we come because we love our country and show how appreciative we are of our military,” Pam Klarkowski said.

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