“When you get up in the morning on Memorial Day and you go out on the front porch,” said Forest Park resident Joe Byrnes, a recipient of a Purple Heart and veteran of two tours in Vietnam, “take a breath of fresh air, just remember what it cost for you to have the freedoms you enjoy and give a little tribute to those who fought and those who died to preserve them.”
Al Bucholtz, a ninety-one year old veteran of World War II, echoed his fellow VFW member’s sentiment. “Just think of the thousands of crosses in cemeteries,” he said.
Lyle Bowden, a veteran of the Korean War, remembered the big parades in the Loop in which he marched on Memorial Day in the 1950s, and lamented how the original meaning of the day has been lost by so many people. “It’s for remembering the guys who aren’t here anymore,” he said, “but participation has dropped off a lot. Kids don’t have the interest. It’s not taught anymore in the schools.”
Byrnes said, “Unfortunately people think of it as a three day weekend instead of what Memorial Day stands for.”
One source of encouragement for the veterans is the planned Memorial Day service in the park this year on May 27 at 2:00 p.m. An honor guard will post the colors and a rifle squad will fire a salute. Wreathes will be laid on the memorial at the park.
Byrnes acknowledged that since the Vietnam War veterans have not joined the VFW and American Legion Post here in town in large numbers. He said that the post would put American flags out on up to 200 graves of veterans in this area, but the practice doesn’t happen anymore because “we don’t have enough members to do it.”
But local Cub Scouts are stepping up to help fill the gap. Tiger Cub Scouts Pack 109, along with Scouts from Oak Park, River Forest and Riverside will decorate veteran graves in Woodlawn cemetery at 8 a.m. Saturday, May 26.
For many vets, the day is a personal experience. Byrnes said he still uses the day to remember. The three vets didn’t talk about the shooting part of the war nearly as much as the close relationships which they formed with their comrades in arms. During the interview Byrnes ticked off the names of most of the guys in his unit and where they came from. “We were such a tight group, like brothers,” he recalled. We were only together for a few months, but it felt like we’d known each other our whole life.”
He said that these days when he goes to the grave of one of his veteran friends, memories will come back like “sitting together at the base in DaNang, having a beer and talking about their families back home. And I blink my eyes, and he’s gone. I’m better off because of guys like that.”
Bucholtz remembered how the war radically changed his life, saying, “I was walking down street in Forest Park one day in 1943, and six months later one of my friends had been shot in Anzio, another friend was in a submarine in the Pacific, another was shot down twice over Germany and another was repairing airplanes in South Pacific. I thought a lot about that.”
He remembered how he narrowly missed being killed by a Luftwaffe bomb. “I was in a USO club one night,” he said, “and the next night it wasn’t there.” He remembered a fellow soldier who befriended German children.
Bowden went through the integration of the military. During his first hitch in World War II, all units were segregated, but his second hitch was during the Korean War after President Truman gave the order to begin integrating the armed forces. “We got along pretty well,” he recalled.
All three remember fondly the days when American Legion/VFW Post 7181 here in town had hundreds of members. Byrnes feels bad that more vets aren’t involved partly because the VFW and American Legion do a lot for military personnel who have returned home. They have lobbied Congress to pass legislation which has increased and speeded up the delivery of benefits to veterans. Likewise, some vets who are members have the knowledge and connections to cut through red tape and get the help needed.
Also, the local Veteran’s Center, now moved to 1515 S. Harlem in Forest Park, offers counseling to individuals, groups and families. It’s staffed by therapists, psychologists, social workers and licensed counselors. The center also offers job counseling and advises veterans on how to access their VA benefits.
Even though the large Memorial Day Parade takes place next door in River Forest, Forest Park has traditionally held a small, but important Memorial Day Ceremony centered around the veteran’s monument at the Park District. Next Monday at 2 p.m., officers from the Forest Park Police Department Honor Guard will form a color guard. U.S. Naval Commander, and Forest Parker Paul Roach will speak and lay a memorial wreath.