Redondo Beach Memorial Day Parade Was Brainchild of Former War Protester

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Redondo Beach is holding a rare Memorial Day parade this morning. KPCC's Brian Watt says the parade was the dream of a onetime war protestor who now dedicates himself to paying tribute to U.S. troops.

Brian Watt: Reverend Bhagavan Friend might not strike you as a guy who'd put together a tribute to fallen soldiers. He wears a pony tail and a beaded medallion. He describes the younger version of himself as a "left wing radical."

Bhagavan Friend: I helped to end the Vietnam War, but I also helped the Khmer Rouge to go in and slaughter one-third of Cambodia by stopping, by pulling our troops out of there. And that weighs really heavily on my conscience.

Has since I woke up to the fact of what my participation in the anti-war movement of the time produced. And so I made up my mind I was gonna atone for it in every way I could.

Watt: Friend says the Memorial Day Parade in Redondo Beach is a big part of his atonement. Five years ago, he asked the city council to help him establish the parade. He says at first, the council members were less than enthusiastic.

Friend: Then, my friend John Simpson here, who is a former marine – there are no ex-marines – wheeled his chair up to the podium and stood up, and just lambasted the city council. And they looked at each other after John sat down, and the mayor said, well, I guess we'd better vote, and they all voted to have the parade. You know, when the master sergeant stands up, people listen. (laughs)

Watt: John Simpson was actually a corporal in the Marines, although he might sound like a master sergeant. He prefers to describe himself as a "grunt" from the Korean War.

John Simpson: Many of the young boys that I went through boot camp with didn't come home. I'm 76 years old, and I've lived a pretty full life, and there's not a day goes by that I don't think about those guys. (Begins to cry) Don't get me started, I get all... verklempt as they say. (laughs)

Watt: Friend, Simpson, and others knocked on doors, raised about $20,000, and pulled off the first Redondo Beach Memorial Day Parade.

[Bag Pipes from 2003 parade]

Parade MC: ... and now leading the color guard at the head of the parade is Reverend Bhagavan Friend. When Bhagavan first started this effort he swore that if no one joined him, he would walk down the street with a flag and drum himself with just a couple of friends. Well, by the looks of today, he's been blessed with a lot of friends, who are here to help him pay tribute.

Watt: I caught up with Bhagavan Friend and John Simpson at a meeting for this year's parade. They were getting briefed by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Ken Felasco. He teaches Junior ROTC at Redondo Union High School.

Ken Felasco: We have a C-17 that should fly over, we have a sheriff's helicopter. And then there's other vintage aircraft, a couple biplanes and a couple other ones that we're working on.

Watt: Again, Bhagavan Friend:

Friend: Now I don't know if we should be in Iraq today. Nobody likes war. Nobody wants to see people coming home in boxes. I don't know if we should be there. I don't know if we ever should have gone there. But I know we're there.

["America the Beautiful" plays]

Parade MC: Now, number 40, the Salvation Army of Redondo Beach, under the leadership of Major Steve and Mary Swenson, with a musical combo led by bandmaster Kevin Larson.

Friend: You know, we do have someone who comes and protests at the tribute every year, and she brings her signs and everything. I always go up and give her a big hug, and I say I understand where you're coming from, I just don't agree with you.

Watt: Over politics, there's always disagreement. But when it comes to honoring men and women in uniform who've died in battle, everyone marches in the same parade.

[Sounds of parade]