At noon today, members and friends of Buffalo’s West Side Rowing Club will gather – for the 70th time – at the club’s flagpole to honor its war dead. This time, as in so many times, there will be something special involved.
The club will have its revered Gold Star banner safely returned, after an odd and contentious journey spanning decades.
Until the clubhouse burned in 1975, all of our returning war veterans and the hundreds of “little brothers” who rowed saw that flag hanging on the ballroom wall. The youngsters viewed it only when they were given the honor of periodically swabbing down the ballroom floor.
We each wondered at the banner in our own way – because it stood for the 78 rowers who came back. Then, dumb horror at the seven who didn’t. Some looked away.
What were the hopes of those seven, ripped from civilian life to die in the “mournful mutter of the battlefield” of the 1940s? Their names give no clue. Who were William Schmitt, Robert Hurley, Adolf Guniewicz, Roy Slaper, William Dellapenta, Robert Richards and Eugene Fawls anyway?
Of course, we know no more about them than most of the other 407,000 American combat dead who fell in a world shrouded in fire and murder.
After the boathouse fire, this hallowed flag was rescued and restored. Then a socially prominent woman – her name couldn’t be less important – thought of our Gold Star banner as a kind of toy, and hung it on the wall of a restaurant she was promoting.
Tiring of our patriots’ flag and the other club trophies, the woman took them down and inexplicably turned them over to a pal, now deceased.
To these subsequent keepers, this banner represented nothing sacred. To us it spoke of the hundreds of thousands of sacrifices offered to save our very own lives, our freedom, our escape from the brutal claws of the Nazi regime and the Japanese Empire.
Hollywood has coaxed many into the delusion that freedom-loving nations like ours were going to win. We were losing badly in 1942. We could have lost.
After the new boathouse was dedicated, club leaders sought the return of our patriots’ banner and other trophies by pleading, letter writing and finally a lawsuit. The campaign took a quarter century.
Former club presidents and attorneys William J. Cotter, now deceased, and Gabriel J. Ferber and longtime rowing coach James Schaab led the charge.
The formal presentation of the restored trophies will occur in June.
Today, the names of the club’s seven dead from World War II, plus a casualty from the First World War, George E. Martin, will be read from a plaque in front of the clubhouse, as they have since 1946.
This rite will be repeated all over the nation, and at American bases around the world, as a history lesson, and as a paraclete – a comforter of the shattered spirits of the war dead from all of our wars and their grieving survivors.
President Obama last Friday became the only sitting president to visit Hiroshima, where the first of two U.S. atom bombs was dropped on Japan. This weekend was an inappropriate time for this. Obama never served in uniform.
Merciless wartime Japanese are not owed anything close to an apology. They murdered thousands of U.S. and allied troops in prison camps, and on the infamous Death March in the Philippines.
President Ronald Reagan served in uniform, but never saw combat because of nearsightedness. Reagan in 1985 made an equally unseemly visit to a cemetery in Bitburg, Germany, honoring dozens of the murderous Nazi Schutzstaffel, or SS, who are buried there.