Fifty-one times, Ralph MacClemmy flew a B-24 bomber over Europe as Allied forces gradually wrested the continent away from Nazi Germany.
Every time, the Air Force pilot from Cherry Hill feared he would never make it back to base. But on Wednesday evening, MacClemmy sat with family as he and other veterans were honored at the second annual Acacia Hospice Veterans Tree of Honor ceremony.
The event, held just outside the hospice facility on Jacksonville Road, honored veterans living and deceased, as well as soldiers currently serving. The ceremony included an "honor roll" containing the names of about 500 veterans, submitted by loved ones.
The gathering culminated with the lighting of a tall evergreen on the Acacia lawn. The lights — red, white and blue — represent the honor roll veterans. Organizers say it will remain lit through the holiday season.
New Jersey Assemblyman Troy Singleton, D-7th of Palmyra, was among the speakers.
The grandson of a World War II veteran, Singleton stressed the immense dedication soldiers display. And no ceremony, speech or honor can truly satisfy the debt they are owed, he added.
"Let's honor that service by making sure that our veterans come home to gainful employment," Singleton urged.
He also said Americans should work to provide returning soldiers with quality health care and help in dealing with the mental trauma they may be suffering.
He highlighted efforts to support veterans' homeless diversion programs as well.
"It is one of the great sins of our country that we ask them to fight for us, but don't fight for them when they come home," the assemblyman said.
"There shouldn't be an issue with veterans and homelessness."
Remarks were also made by Mayor Brian Carlin, as well as representatives of state Sen. Diane Allen, R-7th of Edgewater Park, and U.S. Rep. Tom MacArthur, R-3rd of Toms River.
After the ceremony, Acacia administrator Yeong Bae said the hospice, which serves Burlington, Camden and Mercer counties, plans to make it an annual event.
He said Acacia and other hospices will continue to focus on veterans' needs.
"We want to thank the veterans and discuss the issues they face, keeping their needs at the forefront," Bae said.
"And even at the national level, hospices have banded together to address the needs of our veterans and make sure those needs are met with the highest-quality care possible."
That's a promise veterans like MacClemmy can appreciate. Now a resident at the Masonic Home of New Jersey — neighboring Acacia on Jacksonville Road — the 94-year-old remains humble about his service.
In his World War II missions, he recalled terrifying prospects.
"The Luftwaffe (German air force) was very strong, and we had a lot of anti-aircraft guns firing at us," MacClemmy said.
"We were scared to death. We were young kids, and we hadn't begun to live."
But MacClemmy always relied upon the divine for help.
"God was good to me," he said. "He brought me through. I prayed to him before I went into combat, that he would bring me home safe, and he did. He was my co-pilot."