Marvin Hume was a 20-year-old college student in December 1941, when he learned two buddies had been killed during the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Joseph Hittorff and Walter Simon were Hume's childhood friends from Collingswood, N.J. (pop. 14,326). They died on a Sunday morning two and a half weeks before Christmas amid a cascade of bombs that killed more than 2,300 Americans.
Fuming with rage, Hume's desire to enter the military "was absolute." He enlisted and served in the U.S. Navy for three years and, during his missions, saw unforgettable images of death and destruction.
Hume, 85, doesn't talk much nowadays about those World War II images, but they are at the heart of a memorial ceremony he has conducted the last 33 years just outside the beachside resort town of Cape May, N.J. (pop. 4,034). From May to October, Hume conducts a daily flag ceremony on Sunset Beach to honor the sacrifices of the nation's war veterans.
Fifteen minutes before sunset, Hume stands at the base of a flagpole on Sunset Beach, alongside a family that wishes to honor a deceased loved one who served in the military. As the sun prepares to touch the horizon over the Delaware Bay, Hume plays God Bless America and The Star-Spangled Banner over a loudspeaker system, then helps members of the family lower the American flag while Taps is played.
Hundreds of beachgoers stand at attention during the songs, many of them with tears in their eyes.
"It's so honorable and patriotic," says Gary LeFevre, 35, of Hanover, Pa., attending a ceremony honoring his late grandfather, Clyde LeFevre, who served in the U.S. Air Force during World War II. "I wanted to instill this in my children's life."
Hume never could have scripted the story of how he came to conduct the ceremony. After World War II, he worked for an aircraft company in St. Louis. But his passion was collecting minerals and, in 1957, Hume gave up his engineering career to start a rock and shell shop in Atlantic City, N.J. Over the next 15 years, he developed a successful store and wholesale business. One day, while Hume was making a delivery to Sunset Beach, Preston Shadbolt, the owner of a shell and mineral shop, asked if Hume wanted to buy the place. Hume agreed to a price, and they sealed the deal with a handshake.
The man asked Hume for one favor: Continue his ritual of playing God Bless America each night at sunset while lowering Old Glory. Hume did that and more: He put an ad in a local newspaper asking for casket flags to fly on Sunset Beach. "I've never had to advertise since," he says.
Thirty-three years later, Hume and his family run three gift shops and lease a restaurant at the end of Sunset Boulevard. Many flag-ceremony participants ask for the chance to lower their loved one's casket flag, while others, who have not lost a loved one in battle, volunteer to lower one of the donated casket flags that Hume keeps in storage.
Americans, ranging from military generals to church camp participants, have lowered flags at Sunset Beach, and they've honored veterans from military engagements ranging from World War I to the war in Iraq. Hume recalls one recent flag volunteer, a nearly blind boy with multiple sclerosis. When the flag fell into his hands, the boy started crying.
"He said, 'This is the proudest moment of my life,'" Hume recalls. "The American flag in his hands had honored someone who had served his country."
Hume shrugs off any notion that he's a hero. He'd rather praise his childhood buddies, Hittorff and Simon, who made the ultimate sacrifice. "I don't do it for accolades," Hume says. "I do it because of how I feel inside."
Visit www.sunsetbeachnj.com or call (800) 757-6468 to learn more.