Seventy-five years ago, Bud Liebenow was preparing to enter the military right after the Pearl Harbor attack. Thursday night, Liebenow will still be in service mode when he lights Mount Airy’s official Christmas tree.
Liebenow, now 96, has been chosen as honorary “switch-flipper” for the 21st-annual tree-lighting ceremony in front of the Municipal Building on South Main Street, which begins at 6 p.m.
The community is invited to the gathering that also will include holiday music by the Mountain Valley Hospice Choir led by Fonda Younger, special remarks by Mayor David Rowe and others — with an appearance by Santa Claus closing out the event.
With the lighting of the tree the focal point of Thursday’s program, selecting Liebenow for the coveted role of flipping the breaker was an easy one, according to Allen Burton, chairman of the Mount Airy Appearance Commission. It organizes the annual event.
“There’s a lot of good people in our town that could do it,” Burton said Tuesday of lighting the tree. But commission members thought it would be appropriate to pick a local veteran who logged exemplary service during World War II — including leading the rescue of future President John F. Kennedy.
“To honor him and also to thank him for what he did,” Burton said, calling Liebenow’s selection a worthy choice.
“He is just a great guy, so we’re looking forward to it,” the appearance group chairman added regarding Thursday’s program.
Liebenow, a native of Fredericksburg, Virginia, sought to enlist in the service immediately after Japanese planes attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. But the lines at the recruiting station were so long he could not get accepted into the U.S. Navy until Dec. 21.
He went on to become a naval officer and led the rescue of Kennedy after the lieutenant and his crew were left stranded on an island in the South Pacific. Their patrol torpedo boat — the famed PT 109 — had been rammed by a Japanese destroyer. Liebenow remained close friends with Kennedy until the latter’s assassination in 1963.
Liebenow later was involved in the D-Day invasion in 1944. This included shuttling agents back and forth to the Normandy coast by boat in preparation for the Allied landing and rescuing survivors from the USS Corry, the lead destroyer of the D-Day task force.
The World War II vet has lived with his wife Lucy at the Ridgecrest retirement home since 2006, after moving here from Edenton.
Thursday night’s event will include:
• The ringing of bells at the nearby First Presbyterian Church at 5:55 p.m.
• A prayer led by the Rev. Griff Gatewood of the church.
• The introduction of Liebenow by Kelly Epperson, emcee for the event.
• A countdown by the crowd leading to Liebenow’s lighting of the tree.
• The introduction of the Mountain Valley Hospice Choir, which will perform four songs during Thursday’s gathering.
• Remarks by Mayor Rowe.
• The arrival by motorcycle of Santa Claus, who will be available to meet children.
Free hot chocolate will be served to the crowd during the program by the Beacons group of First Presbyterian Church.
The forecast calls for mostly clear conditions Thursday night, coming on the heels of early week rain.
“I think we’re going to be OK with the weather,” Burton said.
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.