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World War II veterans honored at Freedom Festival

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Five World War II veterans, from left, Johnny Thompson, Luel Poole, Jack Whitmore, Earl Mills and Hank Hodek, were honored at the Freedom Festival on Thursday.

LIVE OAK, Fla. — Buddy Williams is rarely at a loss for words.

But during the honors ceremony at Live Oak’s Freedom Festival on Thursday, Williams had to pause for the words to come to him twice as he got choked up while recognizing five Suwannee County residents who served in World War II.

“I thought it was awesome,” Williams said. “Well, I think we probably have started a new tradition.

“They’ll decide early next year on who we can look at. But I thought it was pretty cool.”

The five honored were Johnny Thompson, Luel Poole, Jack Whitmore, Hank Hodek and Earl Mills.

“What kind of bravery did each of these men exemplify?” Williams said. “I am honored to be the one to be able to stand up here and present them with a very small token, which no way, shape, fashion or form can compare to what they’ve seen.

“You’ve seen more than I’ll ever see. You’ve done more than I’ll ever do and I wish I could tell you just how much we appreciate what y’all have given back to us so we can celebrate days like today, this great country’s birthday.”

While acknowledging the sacrifices the veterans made, Williams was notably affected by Thompson and Mills. The two both served at Normandy as part of the Allies’ D-Day invasion.

“I left my footprints on the bloody beach of Normandy,” Thompson told the crowd at Millennium Park after asking for a chance to speak. “That’s where I’ve been.”

While providing a synopsis of Mills’ service, Williams finally had to stop.

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A child had fun at the street fair during Live Oak's Freedom Festival.

“Woo, it got all up into my feelings,” he said. “When you read through that stuff, like Mr. Mills’, where 800-some-odd people died, 1200 injured in one jump.

“Golly, I can’t even imagine what they were going through.”

Williams and Sheriff Sam St. John also took a moment to recognize the officers at the Live Oak Police Department (Derek Slaughter and Peter Martinez, both reserves with the U.S. Army) and Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office (Josiah Woloszyn with the Army National Guard currently deployed to Afghanistan, Cory Horne with the Army Reserves currently deployed to Saudi Arabia and Derek Hedgepeth with the Marine Corps currently training in Texas) that are currently serving.

And it didn’t take long after the honors ceremony concluded around 7:30 p.m. that the rains came, with a heavy downpour saturating downtown Live Oak.

Williams said the rain kept the number of attendees down on the festival, which he estimated to be around 700-800.

“We didn’t have as many folks that we would have liked for the vendors and all, but it was so hot and then here came the flood,” he added. “But it was a good time.”

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Despite evening storms, Live Oak still had a fireworks show.

Despite the storms, the city’s fireworks show still went off with the rain letting up right around 9 p.m.

“It was a real good show,” Williams added. “We had a pretty good crowd too. They were parked all over Live Oak.

“It was nice.”