After years of neglect, the St. James War Memorial — a modest brick wall at the Long Island Rail Road station off Lake Avenue — has gotten a face-lift.
The original wall, built during the Vietnam War by members of the Sherwood Brothers American Legion Post and its auxiliary, held metal panels inscribed with images of a World War I doughboy and Marines raising the U.S. flag on Iwo Jima. Another panel memorialized the “men and women from St. James, NY who served their country during the Vietnam War.”
Those panels grew tarnished and pitted, the ground in front of them weedy. An American flag hung stranded above the wall, unable to be lowered because the mechanism on the pole was broken. When Smithtown Councilman Tom Lohmann assessed the site this year, “A lot of people in the community said, ‘What memorial are you talking about?’ ” he recalled.
The town spent $2,500 on new panels, paving stones and plantings this fall. A crew of parks department workers installed new sprinklers and lights and has taken over site maintenance.
“We put the money in to make this the monument that it should be,” Town Supervisor Edward Wehrheim, a Navy veteran of two tours in Vietnam, told a small crowd at a Nov. 21 rededication ceremony.
About 358 Vietnam-era veterans live in St. James, with an estimated 874 total veterans in the hamlet, according to Census figures. About 1,952 Vietnam-era veterans live in Smithtown, comprising almost a third of the town’s total veteran population, and Vietnam veterans make up a large portion of the membership of local veterans organizations, such as the Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. Town officials said they did not know the number of residents who served or died in Vietnam, but another memorial, in Kings Park, lists five names.
Wehrheim, who was 18 when he joined the service, recalled little fanfare when he and fellow veterans returned to the town in the 1960s and early 1970s. “I never displayed that I was” a veteran, he said. In general, “Vietnam veterans were not treated with much respect,” though their treatment locally and elsewhere on Long Island was better than in much of the rest of the United States, he said.
Rich Kitson, president of the Suffolk chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said at the ceremony that the memorial had special meaning for fellow veterans who “lose a family member or lose a best friend.”
Leaders of some local chapters of veterans groups, anxious for years about dwindling membership, used the opportunity for outreach. “Our posts are dwindling. We lost 12 World War II veterans last year,” Ed Springer, American Legion commander, told the crowd.
“If you know anyone who served in a foreign war … we could really use the help,” said Sal Riccobono, of the hamlet’s John W. Cook VFW Post 395, where Vietnam veterans make up the core of a dwindling membership of 70, down from 100 a decade ago.