PORTLAND – Portland was just one stop among many on the route south, but the city turned out in force to make sure the convoy carrying wreaths to lay on graves of fallen soldiers was a memorable one.

Hundreds of onlookers — estimated by the event organizer at about 2,000 people — lined Ocean Avenue and the entrance to Cheverus High School on Sunday night to welcome the Wreaths Across America truck convoy to the city.

As the convoy escorted by police cruisers arrived at Cheverus, it passed under an American flag held aloft by ladders extending upward from two Portland fire trucks.

The giant crowd, which filled the high school parking lot to capacity, let out a cheer when the convoy arrived at 5:40 p.m.

“I’ve been going down to Arlington for the last six years,” said Portland Police Officer Kevin Haley, whose brother, William, is buried there. “There are kids here from every high school in Portland. This type of event will hopefully teach them to respect and honor our veterans.”

Haley, the head swim coach at Cheverus, arranged to have the convoy stop in Portland. Next week, he’ll lead a contingent of about 75 police officers, firefighters and volunteers as they head to Arlington National Cemetery to lay wreaths on the graves of fallen soldiers.

Wreaths Across America is a nonprofit organization that recognizes the courage and sacrifices of U.S. veterans by placing wreaths on their graves. It was founded in 2006 by the Worcester Wreath Co. of Harrington.

Karen Worcester serves as executive director of Wreaths Across America. She and her husband, Morrill Worcester, own the wreath company.

Sunday’s convoy carried more than 200,000 remembrance wreaths bound for 500 veterans cemeteries and memorials nationwide as well as 24 overseas locations.

About 24,000 of those wreaths will be laid on soldiers’ graves at Arlington. That ceremony will take place Dec. 11.

“This undertaking is truly remarkable,” said Portland Mayor Nicholas Mavodones Jr., who gave Karen Worcester the key to the city during a ceremony inside the high school gym. Morrill Worcester was unable to attend due to the death of his sister.

“We are here on a Sunday night and there are a whole bunch of teenagers here. That tells me this community is doing something right,” Karen Worcester said.

Worcester announced that she and her husband recently accepted a gift of 10 acres of land in Washington County, where they plan to create a veterans memorial park.

Worcester introduced Stanley Wojtusik, who was a prisoner of war during World War II and serves on the board of trustees for Wreaths Across America.

Worcester said it’s individuals like Wojtusik who have inspired efforts such as Wreaths Across America.

Wojtusik said he was 19 years old when he was captured by the Germans in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge.

The prisoners were placed in three rail boxcars. When a soldier started singing “Silent Night,” everyone started to cry, he said.

Two of the boxcars were accidentally strafed and destroyed by Allied planes. His boxcar was not hit.

He later stole cookies from a German solider and distributed them to the wounded.

“We’ll always remember that as the Christmas we never had,” Wojtusik said.

Maj. Gen. John W. Libby of the Maine Army National Guard praised Wojtusik for his service and asked that all of the World War II veterans in the audience stand to be recognized. Libby said 440 Maine men and women are now deployed overseas.

But, he added, “This global war on terrorism is not without cost. It is important as a nation and as individuals that we recognize those who served.”

The convoy is scheduled to get under way today with a ceremony due to start at 7:45 a.m. at Wells Middle School.

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be reached at 791-6365 or at:

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