|Image of the WH war memorial cannon that stood at the LIRR station Plaza|
This past November marked the hundredth anniversary of the end of WWI, and provides an opportunity to focus upon a long lost feature on the West Hempstead Landscape, the West Hempstead WWI Memorial Monument. The following is the story of this short lived shrine.
The driving force behind this local war memorial was the nascent American Legion Cathedral Post 1087, whose charter was presented at a Nassau County meeting six years earlier on February 24, 1933. Cathedral Post 1087 was ably led by veterans who were also residents and businessman of West Hempstead, like their first commander John A. Palmer, who owned a meat store on Hempstead Turnpike and was also a founding member and Vice President of the WH Board of Trade, forerunner to the WH Chamber of Commerce. In the ensuing decade, more than 100 dedicated members of this post organized local civic events in West Hempstead, such as lectures and winter festivals complete with Santa Claus appearances, which won them multiple national awards from the American Legion for the most active post in the region. In the early years of the Cathedral Post, one of its first orders of business was to address the lamentable absence of a war memorial within West Hempstead. Other than a simple marker and flag mast to the USS Maine and veterans of the Spanish American War, located at the Church of Good Shepherd on Maple St., no other memorial to American veterans had heretofore existed in West Hempstead. (As an aside, the remaining concrete marker of this memorial still exists on the grounds of the current location of the Church of Good Shepherd on Donlon Avenue). Donations were collected and designs submitted for a worthy monument to be constructed at West Hempstead’s busiest location at the time, the WH railroad station plaza.
Finally, on a pleasant late spring Sunday on June 4, 1939, officers and members of the Cathedral Post, along with a slew of representatives of area civic groups, gathered at the railroad station plaza to dedicate their long awaited war memorial to local veterans of World War I. The chosen design was created by a WH sculptor and Post veteran named Edwin T. Howell and consisted of a boulder upon which was a plaque, tersely inscribed with the immortal phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, “That this nation might live”. Next to the monument was a 12 ft long navy gun that had seen action during WWI, mounted onto a white cement base. Along with the many dignitaries who were there, some 2,000 participants and spectators joined the spectacle.The memorial was intended to primarily honor veterans of the Great War, which had ended only 20 years earlier and during which all members of the local American Legion post had served their country. However, being that WWI was at the time considered the “war to end all wars”, it was decided that servicemen of all American wars were also included in the commemoration.
Those 2,000 celebrants who came home the next day to read about coverage in the Nassau Daily Review Star of the ceremony they had just attended would have also noticed a top-fold headline on the same page that blared “Military, Economic Rearmament to Continue, Nazis Say”, which describing Germany’s belligerence less than three months before they were to invade Poland. Notwithstanding that premonition, few would have presaged that only three months later, Germany would invade Poland, setting off the tragic and costly events of World War II.
After the December 7, 1941 attack at Pearl Harbor, the US was abruptly drawn into WWII. By 1942, American resources were severely strained to support an all-out war effort that would be fought in two major theatres. Citizens on the Home Front were asked to sacrifice whatever they could to help out the war effort. These sacrifices came in the form of mass enlistments, purchasing war bonds, planting “victory gardens” to avert food shortages, abiding by strict fuel rations and donating scrap metal, among other things.
As WWII went into full gear, and in response to a plea by the War Department to alleviate a scrap metal shortage, members of the Cathedral Post did what they thought their deceased comrades for whom they erected the memorial would have have wanted them to do. They made the decision to dismantle the navy cannon and donate it to the war effort as a supreme token of their patriotism. As solemn a decision that was, they took their inspiration from those timeless words of Abraham Lincoln that graced their commemoration plaque - “That this nation might live”. At 5:00 p.m. on September 23, 1942, as the Marines were sending reinforcements to Guadalcanal and the Allies were fighting their way up the Italian Peninsula, Cathedral Post Commander Chauncey A. Rich took a blowtorch to the navy cannon to be broken down for scrap.
This Memorial Day, as we end the parade at West Hempstead’s current war monument at Echo Park, we should all celebrate the West Hempstead WWI ornamental that never had a chance to survive thanks to the patriotic spirit of our bygone members of the WH community.