Members of the Southold Volunteer Fire Department knew that, when 65-year member Bob Mallgraf left town Saturday to move to Florida, mere words would not be enough to express their appreciation of the World War II Navy veteran for his devotion to his community and his country.
So after Mallgraf, 92, and his wife, Phyllis, emerged from their home of more than six decades to travel to Long Island MacArthur Airport to catch his flight, several dozen firefighters, veterans from Griswold-Terry-Glover American Legion Post 803 and other friends and neighbors lined Goose Creek Bridge in Southold waving U.S. flags and wishing him well.
Mallgraf guessed that something was up when he heard Saturday on an emergency-services scanner that firefighters were to gather at 8 a.m. near his home.
But he was surprised to see so many smiling people — and a giant flag hanging from a fire truck ladder — greeting him on a dreary, cool early Saturday morning.
“I didn’t think it would be anywhere near that grand,” he said. “It was unbelievable. It was just overwhelming.”
Mallgraf said the move to Florida is bittersweet. He is happy he’ll be living near his daughter, Alice Browning, who accompanied him to the airport and recorded the community goodbye with a cellphone camera.
Yet, he added, “I have a lot of friends here. It’s a nice community we live in. Everyone looks out for everyone else. It’s been that way ever since we moved here. It’s the greatest community in the world.”
Mallgraf was wearing a USS Franklin baseball cap, a sign of how he survived a Japanese bomb attack on the aircraft carrier in 1945 that, according to the Navy, killed 724 people.
Fire department Chaplain Joe McCarthy, 61, called the send-off “one small-town fire department showing its love and respect for a longtime fellow member and true American patriot.”
Southold EMT Karen Byrnes, 52, said the fire department has honored members after they died, but “to be able to do it for a living person was amazing. Obviously the family could be there to enjoy it, and to have the person there was beyond incredible.”