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Late astronaut to be honored in ceremony

Late astronaut Wally Schirra will be honored with a memorial plaque presentation at Mount Soledad Memorial Association’s Veterans Day Ceremony.

It will be held from noon to 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Veterans Memorial atop Soledad Mountain, 6905 La Jolla Scenic Drive South.

The only astronaut to fly in the first three American space programs — Mercury, Gemini and Apollo — Schirra’s black granite plaque will join scores of others on the memorial walls. Plaques honor veterans from the Civil War to current conflicts in the Middle East, and include a picture of the veteran with a brief summary of their military experience.

Bob Phillips, Mount Soledad spokesman, said the La Jolla memorial’s walls are quickly filling.

“There are about 600 openings out of a total of 3,200, and the ones that are left are very low on the wall,” he said, adding that the veterans association is planning future memorial improvements.

“We’re going to have a temporary plaque locator up there, with the ultimate goal of eventually having an electronic touch-screen plaque locator, hopefully sometime after February.”

At the Nov. 7 veterans ceremony, Schirra’s plaque will be unveiled with members of his family in attendance. Schirra, who died on May 3, 2007, will be commemorated by close friend Mark Larsen, a KCBQ radio talk show host.

Born into an aviation family in New Jersey, Schirra flew his dad’s plane at age 15. He was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts chosen for America’s first effort to put humans into space. He was the fifth American and the ninth human to ride into space, logging a total of 295 hours, 15 minutes there.

The astronaut is also famous for his humor and wit and his practical joking, recalls Tracy Kornfeld, a longtime friend who continues on as webmaster for www.wallyschirra.com, which contains a whole page detailing his legendary pranks and zingers.

“He was famous for his gotchas,” Kornfeld said. “He was not only incredible as a pilot and astronaut, but he was also a jokester and a punster throughout his life, which earned him the nickname ‘Jolly Wally.’ No one was safe from him.”

As every year, the memorial association outdoes itself in finding new ways to honor veterans for their selfless service. This year is no exception with, “If You Love Freedom, Thank a Veteran and the Active Military,” chosen as the annual event theme.

The Nov. 7 program’s keynote speech will be delivered by Rear Adm. William French, commander, Navy Region Southwest. Navy Band Southwest will provide music, and the San Diego Salute T-34 Formation Team will conduct a flyover featuring the “Missing Man Tribute.” The 82nd Airborne Division Color Guard will perform.

An address will also be given by state Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher of the 75th District, who served in the Marine Corps Reserves as a counterintelligence and human intelligence specialist.

Veterans Day is an annual American holiday held on Nov. 11, the anniversary of the signing of the armistice with Germany ending World War I at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.

The Mount Soledad Veterans Memorial is owned by the federal government and is managed by Navy Region Southwest. For more information about the association or about obtaining a plaque to honor a veteran, visit www.soledadmemorial.com or call the association office at (858) 459-2314.