WWII vet Richard Poquette to lead Memorial Day parade
VERGENNES — The annual Memorial Day parade in Vergennes is a tradition that honors the men and women of the armed forces who died overseas in service of America.
This year the parade marshal will be longtime resident and World War II veteran Richard Poquette.
Like many of his generation, the Vermont native was swept up by the monumental events that rocked the globe. He answered the call and served his country in some of the biggest battles in both the European and Pacific theaters of World War II.
Poquette graduated from Vergennes Union High School in 1943, and was promptly drafted into the U.S. Navy. After a month and a half in a New York boot camp, Poquette began escorting ships to and from Belfast, Ireland, carrying supplies for the soon-to-be-famous multi-pronged assault on the German-occupied beaches in Normandy, France. After his third trip, he was ordered to remain in Belfast and await further orders.
“We stayed in Belfast after that, and about a week later I was charging up Omaha beach, firing on the Germans,” he said.
On June 6, 1944 — D-Day — Poquette found himself alongside more than 160,000 Allied troops, from eight different countries, undertaking the largest amphibious invasion in history.
He stormed Omaha Beach, one of five sectors along a 50-mile stretch to be swarmed by Allied forces beginning at 6:30 a.m. Poquette clearly recalls the intensity of the invasion, only a fraction of which can be experienced in the myriad cinematic depictions of the harrowing but ultimately successful military strike. Poquette remained in France for a week or two after helping drive Hitler’s forces out of their beach positions, before heading back to Liverpool for supplies.
Poquette recalls another incident in which he played a critical role in overtaking a strategic German fortress on the French coast loaded with guns and ammo. The Army, unable to assault the fortress due to constant machine gun fire, called upon the Navy to create a distraction. Poquette’s ship flanked the fortress, drawing German gunfire away from Allied ground troops. Poquette recalls the storm of bullets at his ship was thunderous.
“It sounded just like throwing a handful of BBs on a galvanized sheet,” he said.
The tactic worked, and the Army was able to overtake and eventually control the fortress.
Poquette spent much of the rest of the war taking much-needed supplies to various sites of conflict, including Northern Africa, Sicily and Southern France. When he returned to America, he was assigned as a crewmember on the newly commissioned USS Missouri. Swinging down to Central America, Poquette and the crew of the Missouri went through the Panama Canal on their way to the port of San Francisco, Calif.
Poquette then traveled to the South Pacific, where he and the crew of the Missouri were involved in two signal battles of the Pacific campaign — the battles for Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
In the Philippines, the Missouri, in coordination with troops stationed at Pearl Harbor, spent several days preparing to invade Japan.
It was at this point that Poquette heard an officer running from room to room yelling.
“‘The war is over!’ he yelled,” Poquette recalled.
Initially doubtful, Poquette soon learned that the Empire of Japan had surrendered. Japanese officials eventually signed the articles of surrender on the deck of the Missouri.
Poquette returned to Boston, and the Missouri continued duty until 1992 when it was officially decommissioned. It is now a museum ship available for tours in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
Poquette was discharged from the Navy in February of 1946, and was married by June. He and his wife, Elizabeth, raised seven children, and have since seen a proliferation of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Poquette worked for some time at a family-owned grocery store in Burlington, before moving back to Vergennes and taking a job at Simmonds Precision Inc., an aircraft and automobile equipment manufacturer. The company was eventually purchased by BF Goodrich.
Poquette retired in 1990 at the age of 65.