Written by Peter T. Cavallaro Wednesday, 24 June 2009 12:20
For many, Memorial Day evokes happy images of cheering citizens and fluttering flags massed along the route of a community parade, followed often by a barbequed meal of classic American fare being shared with family and friends in a sunny backyard setting. The holiday’s very atmosphere invariably seems to reinvigorate entire communities with a healthy dose of patriotism. Yet there is another essential ingredient of this cherished observance, albeit largely as a force that works behind the scenes, which has certainly made its munificent presence felt in Westbury throughout the years: the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW).
Located at 403 Maple Avenue, Cpl. James F. Walsh VFW Post #945 houses an organization that has been a vital component of Westbury’s civic life since 1936 when the post was first established by World War I vets. Apart from playing a key role in the village’s annual Memorial Day services and other events, Westbury’s VFW post has long been a generous benefactor to various community organizations, including the Boy Scouts of America and other youth groups. For the past 73 years, it has also served as a valuable resource for local war veterans and their families.“We get at least one or two calls a week [from] people asking for information about things that their husbands or grandfathers did,” said the post’s Quartermaster Joseph Pascarella, who adds that he has even made house calls to examine discharge papers and military records to provide details about the relative’s military service. “If I can’t personally answer the question, I can redirect [the inquirer] to the Nassau County Veterans Service Agency in Plainview,” he said.
Additionally, Westbury’s VFW has assisted its members to obtain medals from the government which may have been earned during wartime but were never received. “We keep a stack of application forms here and help members find out if they are entitled to receive a medal that was never awarded,” said Pascarella.
At the very core, though, the VFW organization has enabled Westbury’s veterans to fraternize with one another, linked by common experiences of hardship and united by a shared commitment to service. And it appears the post’s members truly love the society and take very seriously its obligation to serve the community. In effect, membership in the organization is, for them, a way of perpetuating in civilian clothes their service to the nation they once risked their lives to defend.
Former U.S. servicemen and women are eligible to join the VFW, which is a national organization, if they have served overseas during wartime; this requirement makes the VFW somewhat more restrictive than its counterpart association, the American Legion.
Yet current statistics do not seem to work in the VFW’s favor: despite boasting an impressive 82 members, the Westbury post’s active membership is currently between five to eight veterans. Additionally, a vastly disproportionate number of the post’s members – all except approximately 12 – are World War II veterans 80 years old and over who have moved out of state.
According to Louis Corte, the post’s commander since 1988, the wane in membership, coupled with the aging of the post’s active members, that has gradually caused a diminution in the post’s activities. Nor has the organization been shielded from financial woes.
“VFW and American Legion posts throughout Long Island are beginning to fold,” said Pascarella, who cites the exorbitant costs of building maintenance and other expenses in the midst of faltering membership as the leading cause. Yet despite this alarming trend, Westbury’s own post has continued to endure, in part thanks to receiving generous outside donations.
Given the markedly low number of members from the Korean and Vietnam Wars, whom member John Pietrofere refers to as “the future of the organization,” the Westbury VFW post welcomes anyone eligible to strongly consider joining. “The more the merrier,” said Corte.
One bright spot during the last several years, however, has been the enrollment of the post’s first two vets from the ongoing Iraq War, who have each returned from tours of active duty. The post’s members greatly encourage these “youngsters” to consider joining as well.
The VFW also invites any interested village residents or members of local organizations – such as Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, schools and other groups – to make arrangements to visit the post. According to Pascarella, the Westbury VFW is “very willing” to receive visitors on appointment, since many of the post’s members enjoy educating people about the realities of America’s foreign wars and sharing their firsthand experiences.
Each member has a fascinating story to tell. Corte, for instance, is an eyewitness to the takeoff of the Enola Gay on the morning that it dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima; member Tom Rich, meanwhile, participated in virtually every front of World War II’s European Theater, being deployed first to North Africa and later serving in Malta, Sicily, Italy, France and eventually Germany itself.
The walls of the VFW post’s basement are bedecked with authentic war memorabilia such as rusty M1 rifles, faded purple hearts, two Japanese short-swords and even a bazooka. Lining the inside of the ground level room is a glass-encased plywood list of approximately 2,200 names of servicemen from Carle Place, Westbury, Old Westbury and New Cassel who served during World War II. Sadly, to the left of about 40 of these names is a small gold star, indicating those individuals who never returned home.
“Every village throughout the United States put up honor rolls with the names of their residents who were serving overseas,” said Pascarella. “I would venture to say that 99 percent of the villages in Long Island discarded theirs after the war ended… [and] we are one of the few [posts] that have ours intact.”
Westbury’s VFW post is, in effect, a treasure trove of firsthand historical information that can yield incalculable insights to anyone seeking to learn about American military history; this itself is an additional reason why the post is an irreplaceable asset to the Westbury community.
“We welcome all members of the community to explore what we have to offer,” said Corte.
The Westbury Cpl. James F. Walsh VFW Post #945 meets on the second Tuesday of each month. Annual membership dues are currently $20. For more information, contact the post at 334-7923.