Picnic turns into surprise ceremony for Marysville vet

Verner Tovrea thought he was there for a picnic. The World War II veteran had no idea, as he sat with his family Sunday, that he had come to American Legion Park in Snohomish for an incredible surprise — a long overdue Bronze Star Medal ceremony.

Even when at least a dozen American Legion Riders roared into the park, 89-year-old Tovrea didn’t suspect a thing. “I thought it was a motorcycle club coming in to picnic,” said Tovrea, who lives in Marysville with his wife, Leona.

The tip-off came from Bruce Krieger, commander of the Snohomish American Legion Post 96. As Tovrea sat at a table on the lawn with his back to a picnic shelter, Krieger came to a podium and pounded a gavel. “All rise for the presentation of colors,” Krieger said. “We’re here today to do an honor that was forgotten in the Second World War.”

When Tovrea heard Krieger continue with “70 years ago,” he knew something was up. “I had a great big lump in my throat,” said the Army veteran, who fought in the Philippines during World War II.

The belated medal ceremony was just one surprise. A crew working for the Discovery Family Channel was there Sunday to film the Bronze Star ceremony and the unfurling of a Japanese flag Tovrea and other members of his unit signed at the end of the war nearly 70 years ago.

Allison Baker, of the Discovery Family Channel’s publicity department, confirmed Tuesday that the freelance crew was there “filming for a Discovery Family series set to launch in late 2015.” Jason Hollis and Allison Trimbell, part of the New York film crew, said Sunday that the series has yet to be titled.

Also in Snohomish on Sunday was “Big Mike” Schario, a TV personality recognized by some of the local American Legion members there to honor Tovrea. Schario has been featured on the History Channel show “American Restoration,” but Baker wouldn’t say whether he’ll be part of the Discovery Family program.

Tovrea was born and raised in Sedro-Woolley. One of 11 children, he worked in logging and was drafted at 19. In July 1945, he was an Army private and part of Company I of the 34th Infantry Regiment serving on Mindanao in the Philippines. That’s where he earned the Bronze Star.

He was the first scout during an action when his unit came under fire. A second scout behind him was killed. Before running for cover, Tovrea grabbed the next man behind him, who had been wounded. He threw that man over a log, saving his life. Tovrea said he never learned the man’s name.

He was in a hospital in the Philippines with dengue fever, a mosquito-borne disease, and missed his Bronze Star Medal ceremony. The award was noted on his honorable discharge papers, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that he contacted the military and received the medal by mail.

Mike Tovrea, the youngest of his four children, had the medal and secretly provided it for Sunday’s ceremony. Tovrea’s older son, Dave, has been working with his father on a World War II oral history project for the Library of Congress. On Sunday, it was Dave who pinned the medal on his father’s chest.

“Seventy years ago, you and many others fought a war against some of the greatest evil the world has ever seen. You did what you were asked and so much more,” the son said to his dad during the ceremony.

Dave then unveiled another surprise, showing his father the signed flag. “To you and the other names on the flag, thank you. We will remember,” Dave Tovrea said.

It was really the efforts of a Pennsylvania woman, and that Japanese flag, which brought the TV crew to Snohomish. Tovrea’s story is expected to be included in the Discovery Family show as part of a segment about the flag.

By phone from Bradford, Pennsylvania, Debbie Anthony said Monday she found the flag in 1999. She said her husband owned an auto-parts store, and the flag was in a box of rags someone brought in. Anthony said she gave it to a friend who had a military surplus store, and it hung in that store’s window. She got it back about a year ago.

Since then, she has been on a mission to find families of all 189 men who signed it at the end of the war. She started a Facebook page, “The Names on the Flag,” and as of Monday had been in contact with 151 families. “I’ve found 11 men who are alive,” Anthony said. She has no personal connection to the names, but said her father and father-in-law both served in World War II.

The flag is hers, but she has sent it to families around the country. “It’s been to Arkansas, Texas, Colorado, Utah, California, South Dakota and Washington. It’s been to Chicago twice. I’ve always gotten it back,” she said.

Verner Tovrea said she agreed to leave it here until after a Tovrea family reunion in August.

The Pennsylvania woman said TV producers learned about her search when she responded to “a little ad” looking for World War II stories. She said it was posted on a veterans website she was using to locate the flag’s signers.

Her Facebook page is now filled with pictures of the signatures, old photos from the war in the Pacific, and obituaries. Verner Tovrea, who served in the Army of Occupation in Japan for a year after the war, doesn’t remember signing it. He said flags were common souvenirs brought back by soldiers.

Back home, he married and started a family, went to college on the GI Bill, and later earned a master’s degree at Stanford University. For 27 years, he taught geology and other sciences at Everett Community College.

He is the proud father of Dave, who lives in Lake Stevens, daughters Lee Tovrea, of Bothell, and Sue Burrows, of Bainbridge Island, and Mike, of Kirkland.

With the modesty typical of his generation, Tovrea said “it isn’t about me.”

“He would say he was just an average person doing his job,” his wife added.

Julie Muhlstein: 425-339-3460; jmuhlstein@heraldnet.com.

Learn more

Information about the search for 189 families whose relatives’ names were signed on a Japanese flag at the end of World War II are on a Facebook page, “The Names on the Flag.” http://on.fb.me/1GkxDhq

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