Thousands of people turned out in tribute to the men and women who died in the nation's wars as Fairfield's annual Memorial Day parade stepped off under brilliant spring skies Monday.

"Never forget what we all owe to those who lost their lives in service to this nation," said Vanessa Marshall, a retired Army nurse, who delivered the keynote address during a brief ceremony on Town Hall Green after the parade. "Because of them, we are free. Because of them, our nation lives. Because of them, we are blessed,"

More than 1.5 million Americans have died in wars, and half of them were killed in the Civil War, which initiated the nation's observance of Memorial Day, first known as "Decoration Day," Marshall said.

Probate Court Judge Daniel Caruso, who served as the parade's master of ceremonies, said the town was fortunate to have clear skies and cool temperatures for this year's parade. "We've been fortunate today, had a wonderful day for the parade, one of the biggest ever," he said.

Many parade-goers, who lined both sides of the Old Post and Post roads along the line of march, dressed in patriotic colors and held American flags as 90 contingents representing veterans, the Police Department, Fire Department, town schools, and civic and community groups marched by over a 90-minute span.

Mary Soracco, a lifelong Fairfield resident who was at the parade with her four daughters and grandson, said they came to honor and support military veterans.

"They're very important to us. I think they deserve the respect and support of the community. I think that's one of the biggest things in the parade," she said.

Meghan Tang, a former Fairfield resident who was with her husband, Jeff, and their 3-month-old son, Alexander, said she and Jeff have attended Fairfield's Memorial Day parade since they were youngsters living in Fairfield. "I like the fact it's a community parade. You know at least somebody in the parade, somewhere," she said.

Tang said she marched in the parade as a member of Jennings School's Girl Scouts and as a member of Fairfield High School's marching band, adding that she liked watching the parade more than marching in it on hot days. She said the FHS marching band uniform was made of black polyester with leather overlays.

"When it's 80 degrees out and 100 percent humidity, you'd be drenched," she said.

David Pirrie, a longtime Fairfield resident, said he's attended the town's Memorial Day parade for 40 years and liked its marching bands, as well as the general atmosphere.

"The sense of community is really nice," he said. "It's a family thing and tradition. We're all about tradition in my house."

The Fairfield Town Youth Council came up with the theme for this year's parade -- "Red, White and Blue, We Honor You -- The Armed Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, Thanks for Taking a Stand."

Katie Tangney, a senior at Fairfield Warde High School, said she and the other four co-presidents in the Town Youth Council came up with the theme through brainstorming and that "honoring our veterans and soldiers in the parade on Memorial Day feels good."

Julia Mitri, 18, a senior at Warde and co-president of the Town Youth Council, said she appreciates the parade now more than when she marched in it as a Girl Scout.

"It's definitely a different experience being in it as an older kid," she said. "I think you can appreciate it more. You can appreciate the veterans and the whole experience of helping your community."

Marching bands included students from Fairfield Woods Middle School, Roger Ludlowe Middle School, Tomlinson Middle School, Fairfield Warde High School and Fairfield Ludlowe High School.

Alison Dimaio, 17, a junior at Warde who played the euphonium in her school's marching band, said she liked seeing people from all over town. "It's nice seeing the veterans and playing music for them," she added.

Marshall, during her post-parade speech, traced the role of women in America's wars, beginning with Sybil Ludington, who rode a horse for 40 miles to warn militias of an attack by the British in the Revolutionary War, and Mary McCauley, who carried pitchers of water to cool cannons in the Revolutionary War and who took over her husband's cannon after he was killed.

She said Mary Walker, a surgeon and prisoner of war in the Civil War, was the only woman to receive the Medal of Honor.

Marshall said about 750,000 women served in non-combat roles in World War II and that 60,000 were nurses.

She said 67 women were captured in the Battle of Bataan in World War II and held as prisoners of war for more than two years, and that women also played an important role in mobile army surgical hospitals that first appeared in the Korean War.

Marshall said eight women who served as nurses in the Vietnam War are listed among the 58,000 who died in that war.

Len Sabia, of Fairfield, who helped build the float awarded first place in the parade -- "A Night of Music Benefiting St. Vincent's Medical Center's Swim Across the Sound" -- attributed the large crowd at this year's parade to Monday's nice weather, a sharp contrast to the blustery rains of the preceding days.

St. Vincent's float depicted a 28-foot-long and eight-foot-high purple guitar and publicized "A Night of Music" on Nov. 23 to raise money for research into a cure for pancreatic and liver disease.

Charlene Lebo, Len Sabia's sister and a former Representative Town Meeting member, said her husband, Keith, died of pancreatic cancer in August 2009, and that Jimmy DeSantie, Keith's friend and the husband of Charlene's sister, died nearly a year later of the same disease. "There are so few survivors that nobody can speak for them," she said.

North Stratfield School's float, which placed second, was decorated with a patchwork and collage of American flags and was built by 32 girls in two Girl Scout troops at the Putting Green Road elementary school.

"I liked showing the second-place sign and I liked saying `Hi' to all the people we know," said Marissa Coletti, a fourth-grader at North Stratfield and Girl Scout who made flowers out of duct tape for the float. "It's really just celebrating a really happy Memorial Day."

The Rev. William Quinlan, pastor of Our Lady of the Assumption Church, delivered the invocation before Marshall spoke and asked God to remember those who were killed fighting America's wars. "Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them," he said.