Vets warn their day is waning

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While there was plenty of fun in the sun at Cadman Plaza Park this past Memorial Day weekend, no one apparently went to the park to do what it was designed for – honoring the veterans.

So say a handful of scrappy World War II and Korean vets – three in all – who took it upon themselves to plant American flags around both the Korean War memorial and the World War II memorial, the borough’s largest, this past weekend. The flags were the only patriotic pride seen in the park over the three-day weekend, which some believe is slowly moving from saluting our veterans to celebrating the “unofficial start to summer.”

“A lot of people thanked us when they saw us planting the flags around the memorial,” said 81-year-old Jack Vanasco, a Fort Greene native who served with General Douglas MacArthur during World War II’s Pacific Campaign. “They said that they were glad that we were honoring the vets of the neighborhood, since no one else was.”

But for every person who thanked them at the 10 acre park, bounded by Cadman Plaza East and West and Tillary and Johnson streets, there was another that “didn’t even know that there was a war memorial in the park,” Vanasco said.

Thus describes a symptom of a much larger problem: fewer and fewer neighborhoods are hosting Memorial Day parades or wreath laying ceremonies, even though each community has at least one veteran memorial in the area.

Neighborhood officials leave the organization of these parades to the veterans themselves and if they’re too few in number, do without – even when the largest veteran memorial in the borough is in their backyard.

When contacted, neither cops from the 84th Precinct, nor members of Community Board 2 and City Councilmember David Yassky’s office knew of any Memorial Day parades in downtown Brooklyn.

The closest parades were in Greenpoint and in Bay Ridge, where Memorial Day parades are held annually.

“[The parades] are usually run by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign War members and most of them are in Bay Ridge,” said Vanasco. “They have their own clubs and they don’t want to go downtown.”

Vanasco said that he has been trying to find a veterans’ group that would take over the granite and limestone World War II memorial, which is dedicated to the men and women who died overseas. Over 7,000 of those soldiers lived in Brooklyn, Vanasco said.

The memorial, which has a 250-seat auditorium inside, is filled with metal plates – each representing a soldier who died protecting their country from tyranny.

The back wall of the memorial has a relief depicting a male warrior on the left and a female with a child to the right, which serve as symbols of victory and family.

Parks officials said that the idea for a large-scale borough monument was based on then Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’s desire to create unified World War II monuments for each borough.

In the end, Brooklyn was the only borough to build such a monument, which was dedicated in November 1951.

Even then, the city didn’t have enough funding to embrace the entire scope of the memorial’s initial designs.

What currently stands in Cadman Plaza Park is actually a scaled back version of what was planned, historians said.

While the memorial was used by community groups in the beginning, it was mostly forgotten about in the 1970s. In the 1980s, the Parks Department used the site mostly for storage, Vanasco said.

With such an apparent lack of interest in the memorial, Vanasco and his brother Roy, another veteran who is also a member of Community Board 2, are afraid that the city may forget about the memorial entirely over time.

“We do not want to see it go,” Vanasco said.

Board officials, however, do not see that happening.

A few years ago, $3 million was invested to restore the park, as well as the field outside the memorial.

Robert Perris, Community Board 2’s District Manager, said that board members hope that more work can be done on the park when more funding is available.

“[Cadman Plaza Park] is on our budget priorities list, as well as Washington Park and Walt Whitman Park,” he said, who said that there are no specific plans for the memorial.

“It’s a World War II memorial and sadly it’s getting to the point that there are fewer guys and gals from that generation around who remember those that fought in that war,” Perris said, when asked about the apparent lack of interest in the memorial. “The community board would like to see that building utilized more than it is now, but so far that hasn’t happened.”

Yet change could be on the horizon.

Members of the Brooklyn War Memorial Museum Committee, chaired by former Borough President Howard Golden, have begun a campaign to restore the purpose of the Brooklyn War Memorial building so it would be a tribute to “all of the borough’s veterans.”

“We want to re-establish [the building] as a place that pays homage to the commitment and sacrifice of Brooklynites, from the earliest days of our nation in the Revolutionary War Battle of Brooklyn to those now serving America in the Middle East and around the world,” Golden wrote in a letter currently making its rounds to local community groups and veterans organizations seeking their support.

The campaign is still in the early stages, organizers said.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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