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'First in Fight' forgotten no longer

Many of its members died in combat in the swamps of the Philippines and the ridges of Korea, their remains interred in Hawaii in a picturesque volcanic crater-turned-cemetery called the Punchbowl.

And as one the 24th Infantry Division's survivors, Dan Rickert of San Juan Capistrano, Calif., looked at the 41 monuments that are in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific and wondered why there was none for the one nicknamed the Victory Division.

"There's thousands of our members there in the Punchbowl," said Rickert, chairman of the monument committee. "There was nothing to say we passed there."

That statement will soon be made by a handsome bronze plaque sitting atop a nearly one-ton block of Vermont granite.

Unveiled Wednesday in front of about 40 people at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens, the 24th Infantry Monument will eventually take its place on Memorial Walk at the cemetery.

It did not come about easily, said Rickert and two Amherst veterans, Sal Schillaci and Kenneth Fentner, also former members of the 24th Infantry, who were instrumental in making the monument become a reality.

The first thought was to get stone from Korea for the monument, but that couldn't be done.

There also were problems finding sponsors for the monument. "A lot of people turned me down," Schillaci said. "They said, 'We don't have funds to make a contribution.' By a stroke of luck, I contacted Stone Art Memorials."

They found a receptive audience in Thomas Koch, president of Lackawanna-based Stone Art, who contacted his granite supplier, Rock of Ages Quarry in Barre, Vt. Koch and the quarry agreed to split the $3,500 cost of the granite for the monument.

Rickert's granddaughter, Danielle Rickert, designed the plaque, which featured the division's logo, a taro leaf. Taro is a common plant in Hawaii, where the 24th took shape at the start of World War II.

The leaf, made of beautiful colored glass, is centered on an upraised banner. Members of the monument committee said a number of bronze casters tried to talk them into flattening the plaque, but they insisted that it remain raised.

"We had a difficult time getting an artist to do the work," Rickert said. "They wanted to make a flat plaque, like you see in a cemetery."

The plaque is dedicated "to those who were First in Fight." That was another moniker for the 24th, earned when it fired back at the Japanese war planes that attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"The Japanese also attacked Schofield Barracks" on Oahu island, the 24th's home, Rickert said. "You can still see the bullet holes where the Japanese strafed the buildings."

The 24th was "First in Fight" again in America's next military action in Korea. The 24th was part of the occupation force in Japan when the Korean War broke out, and its members were participants in the first battle in that conflict.

At the ceremony, the group also thanked Rep. Thomas J. Reynolds, R-Clarence, and Assemblyman James P. Hayes, R-Amherst, for arranging to ship the monument to Hawaii. For Schillaci, a veteran of the Korean War, the monument provides a measure of comfort.

"It's a personal thing: I lost two of my dearest friends" in combat, he said. "I've had a great deal of difficulty coming to terms with the loss of my friends. I feel this will help me put some closure on this."


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