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Nightly Flag Ceremony at N.J. Beach

June 13, 2002

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LOWER TOWNSHIP, N.J. (AP) _ On summer nights at Sunset Beach, patriotism runs high when the sun sinks low.

A flag ceremony that’s been an evening fixture here for 30 years is enjoying newfound interest in the wake of last year’s terrorist attacks and Americans’ resurgent patriotism.

It begins each night just before sunset, when Kate Smith’s 1939 recording of ``God Bless America″ blares from tinny loudspeakers mounted on utility poles next to the beach.

Then comes the national anthem and ``Taps,″ followed by the lowering of a flag provided by the family of a dead serviceman or woman.

The simple event reduces some observers to tears.

``It’s the most old-fashioned ceremony you can imagine, but it just gets better and better,″ said Martha Dunphy, 56, of Hartsdale, N.Y., who’s seen it hundreds of times. ``Since 9/11, all this seems so much more important.″

It has always seemed important to Marvin Hume, 81, who owns the Sunset Beach Gift Shop and runs the ceremony.

Hume, who served in the U.S. Navy in World War II, bought the store in 1973. His predecessor had a tradition of playing ``God Bless America″ at sunset and asked Hume to keep it up.

He did that and more.

Through the years, Hume added the two other songs and introduced the flag to the ceremony. He put an advertisement for veterans’ casket flags in a local weekly so he can run a different flag up the 30-foot pole every night.

The sunsets, which illuminate the sky over the Delaware Bay in a dazzling display of color, also are part of the attraction. They’re unusual for a New Jersey beach, since most of the state’s beaches face east.

The tradition is so beloved among Cape May vacationers, locals and veterans that people sign their children up to help in the lowering of the flag a year in advance.

The ceremony, held every night from May through October, sometimes attracts hundreds of sunburned beachgoers, patriotic locals and World War II veterans to this beach near New Jersey’s southern tip. A particularly large crowd was likely this Friday, on Flag Day.

Attendance has been up this year, according to Hume, who attributes the growing interest in the event to post-Sept. 11 patriotism.

``It ties in God, family and country in one neat little bundle,″ said John McBride, 40, of Philadelphia, who volunteered the casket flag of his grandfather _ a World War I soldier _ and helped lower it with a half-dozen family members at his side.

``For a small moment, it’s bringing someone back to life and celebrating a lot of the things we have to be thankful for in this country.″

On a recent Thursday night, the ceremony used the casket flag of Pfc. John Donald Gemmill, who was killed in action Aug. 5, 1944, in Normandy.

``I’ve kept this flag folded, in my bedroom drawer, since 1945,″ said his 81-year-old brother, Eugene Gemmill of York, Pa., tears rolling down his face. ``My daughter and son-in-law live down here, and we had been out to witness the ceremony a few times and always considered it very impressive.″

``It reminds you that these men paid the supreme sacrifice so we could all be free,″ he said.

With a storm brewing, the crowd on this night was about 100 people. The sunset, which occurred behind blue-gray clouds, was a disappointment.

The ceremony never is.

``It’s very stirring,″ said Don Zimmer, 48, of Chattanooga, Tenn., who’s seen it 10 times. ``You find yourself reflecting on our history. It surprises you, the way it evokes some of these patriotic feelings in you.″

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