Line-of-duty families continue tradition at O’Neill’s
Thursday is Veterans Day, which was first recognized by Congress 95 years ago and has been a national holiday since 1938. Veterans Day pays tribute to all American veterans, whether they are still with us or not.
If you know someone who has served, thank them for their service. Or better still, ask them where they served and what it was like. You’ll hear some very interesting stories.
I bring some exciting news about a newly discovered memorial in Woodhaven, one that’s been sitting in plain view for many years.
To begin, let’s review the memorials that we all know about, starting with the large granite monument and plaque dedicated to the young men who lost their lives in World War I in the front yard of American Legion Post 118 on 91st Street and 89th Avenue.
This large monument once sat in Forest Park where Memorial Day parades used to conclude, but it was moved to the American Legion when the new post was built in the early 40s.
A second Woodhaven monument, Lieutenant Clinton L. Whiting Square, is on 84th Street and 91st Avenue and is sometimes referred to locally as “The Rock.” Erected in the late 1920s, it memorializes a local lad who died in World War I.
The third monument sits on Forest Parkway and Jamaica Avenue and was erected in the early 1950s to honor local youth killed in World War II. For many years, this was an important stop for Memorial Day parades. A 21-gun salute was often performed at this location.
A fourth monument, brass plaques with the names of young men from the parish who died in both World Wars, sits inside the back lobby of St. Thomas the Apostle Church.
A fifth monument sits just to the east of the trees along Forest Park Drive. Private First Class Lawrence Strack Memorial Pond was named after the first local youth killed in Vietnam. At the time it was dedicated, the pond had been converted to ballfields.
A sixth monument is a location we’re all familiar with, but might not realize it was dedicated to the war dead. Victory Field was built and dedicated to “the unknown soldier of World War I.”
The next three memorials had been lost to history until the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society (WCHS) discovered them. The first was the Memorial Trees of Woodhaven, which run along Forest Park Drive from Park Lane South past Oak Ridge and towards the Forest Park Carousel.
These trees were planted for local soldiers who lost their lives in World War I. Families used to decorate them on Memorial Day, a tribute that the WCHS revived in 2015. In 2017, the City of New York co-named the road through the park as “Forest Park Memorial Drive” in honor of the trees.
The next rediscovered memorial was the triangle at Rockaway Boulevard and Atlantic Avenue dedicated to Father Lawrence Lynch, the tough Irish chaplain who heroically served in World War II and lost his life at the Battle of Okinawa while comforting and giving Last Rites to a dying soldier.
The triangle was dedicated in 1949, but over time the sign disappeared and people forgot about it until WCHS uncovered it and brought it to everyone’s attention. Seventy years after it was originally dedicated, the triangle was rededicated to Father Lynch in 2019.
And now we have one more memorial that has been long forgotten and sitting mostly unrecognized for decades.
Legion Square is an area of Woodhaven at Rockaway Boulevard and Elderts Lane surrounded by homes and stores, with a grass-covered triangle in the middle. It was dedicated for American Legion Post 118 in June 1930.
At one time, there were three cannons on the triangle. For many years, Flag Day ceremonies were held here and many Memorial Day parades started at this beautiful spot.
So well regarded was the location that it was selected as one spot for a Welcome to Woodhaven sign, as well as a sign proclaiming it as “The Gateway to Queens.”
The triangle itself is still there and well maintained by the Parks Department. They even have a small sign identifying it as Legion Triangle, but you really need to look closely to see it. We can improve on that.
The Garden of Remembrance is one of Woodhaven’s oldest Memorial Day traditions, spanning at least seven decades.
Created by American Legion Post 118, the Garden at at 91st Street and 89th Avenue consists of white markers with the names of soldiers killed in action, as well as members of the Post who are longer with us.
Over time, the Garden has grown to a few hundred markers. And in recent years, as members of the post grew older, the honor of erecting the Garden passed to the Junior ROTC of Franklin K. Lane High School.
Last year, due to COVID-19, the Garden of Remembrance was not erected, the first time in 70-plus years it was not on display for Memorial Day.
And it appeared that due to the cancellation of after-school programs over the past year, the Junior ROTC was not going to be available and the Garden would not see the light of day for the second year in a row.
It’s a quirky thing about the ending of traditions. They don’t end with any fanfare, there’s never any announcement. There’s never even any acknowledgement that something special is ending.
The people who were used to a tradition being a part of their lives quickly become used to the tradition going away. It just stops one year and then stops for another.
And then it fades away. Like Anniversary Day Parades. Like Rollback Days.
That’s why it was important for the Garden of Remembrance to be assembled this year, especially right now, coming out of a long dark year in which so many of us have lost so much. We couldn’t afford to lose this unique and beautiful tribute. We couldn’t take that chance.
And so this past Saturday, a group of local residents had the honor of taking part in this tradition, joining members of Post 118 to place the white markers in the front yard of their headquarters at 91st Street and 89th Avenue.
It was a very hot morning and there was a lot of work to be done. Using stakes and ropes to line up the markers, we started in one corner and slowly made our way across the yard.
Each marker has a name and a story of its own, and behind every marker is a family that grieved. Some of those families are no longer around, but many are. In fact, one of the volunteers had the honor of installing the marker dedicated to her great-grandfather.
Back in 2017, I received an email from a man whose uncle, Lieutenant Harry Schmitt, was killed in a plane crash in July 1958. He was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware at the time. He was just 19 and looking forward to a trip back home to Woodhaven.
Harry Schmitt went to St. Thomas the Apostle and Franklin K. Lane and had a job delivering the Leader-Observer. In a tribute to this young man, the Leader wrote: “As a boy, Harry had become known to everyone in the office. From the first day when he took his papers out on his route, his spirit of affable friendliness endeared him to everyone.”
That Memorial Day, we looked in the Garden of Remembrance for a marker with Harry Schmitt’s name and we found one.
We sent pictures of it to the family and they were very touched. It meant a great deal to them that over the decades, Woodhaven remembered. Year after year since his death, American Legion Post 118 honored Harry Schmitt and all the other heroes that were no longer with us.
The following Memorial Day, 60 years after young Lieutenant Harry Schmitt perished, his family returned to Woodhaven for the Memorial Day ceremony. Post 118 added a nice new nameplate to Harry So it was important that the Garden of Remembrance returned this year. It was important to show that Woodhaven always remembers.
If you pass by the Garden, please take a moment to stop and look at all the markers. Try not to notice that some of the rows are slightly out of alignment or a bit askew, starting off closer together than they end up.
Take notice of the names and remember. Woodhaven always remembers.