Retired U.S. Navy Capt. William Toti made a promise to make sure the sacrifices of a crew of Navy soldiers during World War II were never forgotten. It's a promise he's been trying to uphold for the last two decades.
As the final commanding officer of the USS Indianapolis submarine, Toti shared the story of the 316 surviving crewmen of the cruiser by the same name. The crewmen had recently completed a mission to deliver parts of the atomic bomb destined for Hiroshima, and on July 30, were attacked by a Japanese submarine. The USS Indianapolis sunk, and those who survived the initial incident spent the next five days trying to survive while stranded in the ocean.
Toti, of Ormond Beach, met many of the survivors later in his military career, and when he recalls their sacrifice — along with all the other veterans who have had to endure many trials for their country, he said nothing he personally experienced in his 26 years of active duty can compare.
And yet, Toti himself is a survivor, having lived through the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon.
“Many of my friends died that day, but for some reason I did not," he said. "When something like that happens to you, you can’t help but wonder why you were spared when so many others weren’t. It took years for me to make peace with how this played out, but I eventually did.”
Toti was one of the featured speakers during the Ormond Memorial Art Museum's Veterans Day Tribute on Thursday, Nov. 11. Held at the museum garden's parking lot under a white tent, over 150 citizens, veterans and community leaders attended the annual event, which returned to an in-person format this year.
Decades of stories
OMAM's history with veterans dates back to its creation. In 1946, it was built as a tribute to veterans of World War I and WWII, and several of them participated in its construction. The museum, which is currently undergoing a $3.5 million renovation, has four veteran memorials, and when the new building opens in 2022, the original one will be displayed prominently in the reception area, said Lisa Perry, president of the museum's board of directors.
“Your service and sacrifice have kept our country safe and free, and we are eternally grateful for your service," Perry said.
The theme of remembering the sacrifices made by veterans continued in Cathy Heighter's speech. An American Gold Star Mother, Heighter is the co-founder of Remembering Vets, a local nonprofit that supports local veterans and first responders.
She also made a promise to remember.
Her youngest son died in Iraq in 2003, and when she found herself in a club she said she never wanted to be a part of: Mothers who have lost children while they were in the service of the U.S. Armed Forces. The first time she went to an American Gold Star Mothers meeting, she watched as mothers told the stories of their fallen sons and daughters, some who had perished decades before.
Heighter said she chuckled to herself. That would never be her, she thought.
"Here I am today," she said. "It’s almost 20 years later, and I’m still telling that story, just as I saw all those other, beautiful, American Gold Star Mothers devoted to their loved ones, telling their stories, remembering them. Honoring them, and I tell you today — not a day goes by that I don’t think of my dearly beloved son and all of those service members, men and women, who have made the ultimate sacrifice for this great nation.”
All members of the U.S. Armed Forces know there may come a time when they're asked to make "the ultimate sacrifice," said Toti. But none ever think that sacrifice may come outside of the front lines.
“But that’s the world we live in today," Toti said. "It’s not a world with defined front lines. It’s a world where the front line tomorrow could be in your backyard.”
The idea of sacrifice is something the veterans who served after 9/11 share with the veterans of wars past, he continued. Thousands of civilians died that day, and thousands of soldiers died after that.
“And yet, the concept of sacrifice has become alien to most Americans," Toti said. "It seems to be limited to a very small percentage of our population, mostly veterans. But it wasn’t always that way.”
During WWII, Americans participated in scrap metal and rubber drives to help the war effort. They planted Victory Gardens and endured harsh rationing. They bought war bonds.
Things changed in the generations that followed, Toti said, and despite the nation coming together on Sept. 12, 2001, the unity and notion of universal sacrifice didn't last. Instead, he said only those who served post 9/11 endured those sacrifices. And most recently, when asked to wear a mask to stop the spread of COVID-19, many pushed back against this.
"If wearing a mask is too much sacrifice in modern times, what does that say about the more substantial sacrifices that prior generations had to make, or future generations might have to make?” Toti said.
He closed out his speech by referencing the 1998 film, "Saving Private Ryan," where the dying character of Capt. John Miller tells Private Ryan to "Earn this," highlighting the sacrifice he made in the line of duty.
“Have we earned this?" Toti asked. "I worry that we haven’t, and knowing this, I worry for future generations, because if history teaches us anything, it teaches us that we struggle to learn any lessons from history. Let us earn this, starting today, and let this Veterans Day be a reminder that we need to earn this each and every day going forward.”