WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Dec. 15, 2006) - In 1992, Morrill Worcester, owner of Worcester Wreath Company in Harrington, Maine donated 5,000 red-bowed wreaths to Arlington National Cemetery. It became a tradition.
Yesterday, an 18-wheeler bearing this year's wreaths wound its way through the cemetery's fog-laden slopes to be met by throngs of volunteers who turned out to place the evergreens on the graves.
Worcester was touched by the turnout and support throughout his trip, which started in Maine Dec. 9. Clad in a "Wreaths Across America" banner, the tractor-trailer was escorted south by the Patriot Guard Riders, a nationwide group of motorcyclists who assist families at military funerals.
"It was just amazing to see the people on the sides of the road cheering and clapping," Worcester said. "We went by one high school in Connecticut, and I bet every student in that school was on the side of the road to greet us. We were shown incredible respect."
"I'm overwhelmed by all of this," he said. "Every time I come, I'm overwhelmed. It's just tremendous, all these volunteers, the attention along the route ... this is all about giving veterans their due."
Worcester's wreath tradition was born from a mistake and a childhood memory.
"We had ordered more than we could sell in '92. They were nice, fresh wreaths I didn't want to just throw away," he recalled. "I happened to think of Arlington because I'd come here when I won a trip to Washington as a 12-year newsboy.
"I saw the changing of the Guard, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and the acres and acres of graves ... it all just struck me ... a memory I've never forgotten," said Worcester. "So, I hoped Arlington would allow me to decorate the graves - they did, and so here we are."
John C. Metzler Jr., superintendent of Arlington National Cemetery for the last 16 years, remembered how the wreath program began and how it's grown into a major event.
"I received a call from Maine Senator Olympia Snowe's office asking me if the cemetery could do something with 5,000 surplus wreaths. From that, we entered into what we have today," he said.
"The first year we had about 50 volunteers, and we were scrambling to get all the wreaths placed by the end of the morning," Metzler said. "I expected about 500 volunteers this year, but we had closer to 1,000."
Volunteers made short work of the wreath-laying, which was completed just before the late-morning sun burned through the fog.
Worcester created Wreaths Across America in response to letters and interest. This year, he expanded the program to include wreath placements at 230 national and state veterans' cemeteries.
At the same time four wreaths were laid at Arlington's Tomb of the Unknown Soldier yesterday, six wreaths, representing the service branches and honoring former prisoners-of-war and those missing-in-action, were laid at the flagpole of each national and state veterans' cemeteries.