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A WWII fighter pilot died to save his Mississippi crew, Palazzo tells on Memorial Day

They sang. They saluted. They prayed.

They waved American flags and wore hats decorated with military ranks and mementos of their service.

They were among the crowd of dozens who gathered together to honor the lives of those in the U.S. military who never made it home — the ones who lost their lives while fighting to protect the freedoms of America, officials said Monday at the Memorial Day ceremony at Biloxi National Cemetery.

People of all ages sat in chairs or stood under the shade of trees as two rows of American flags waved in the breeze. Attendees heard about the importance of Memorial Day from Gov. Phil Bryant, U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo and Air Force Maj. Gen. Timothy Leahy, the ceremony’s keynote speaker.

“Today is not a day of mourning but a day of celebration,” Leahy said. “(We) honor those who wear the uniform for the United States of America.”

Leahy told the crowd that the U.S. military is “a military that rescues, frees and brings hope to those in need.”

The men and women who lost their lives in wars defending the United States remind us that “freedom has never been free,” Leahy said.

Palazzo shared a story of a fallen Mississippi fighter pilot that he had heard just days before the ceremony.

German fighter pilots attacked a formation during a B-17 bombing mission in Germany during World War II. One of the planes in the American formation was crewed by Mississippians. The pilot was identified by Palazzo as 1st Lt. Gerald Johnston of Summit, Mississippi.

“They were ripping the Mississippi-crewed plane to shreds ... Lt. Johnston ordered his men to bail out,” Palazzo said. “In order to do so, he took control of the plane so they could escape.”

Johnston did not have a chance to follow his crew. He went down with the plane and died.

“By this heroic act and making the ultimate sacrifice, he saved several members of his crew,” Palazzo said. Johnston left behind a wife and young child.

Palazzo asked the crowd to live in a way that honors fallen military heroes.

“It’s remarkable that only 1% of Americans answer our nation’s call to serve, and they all give some, but some give all,” Palazzo said.

Bryant spoke about his father, a Navy Seabee who fought in World War II.

His father used to joke and say the Navy bought his first pair of “good” shoes. Bryant used to laugh — until his mother told him it was the truth.

“Those young boys of the past ... that fought in those wards that are past gone, we honor them. We honor their memory,” Bryant said.

Bryant also urged the crowd to think about the soldiers and other military members who are still alive on Memorial Day.

“We might simply say to them — thank you.”