Kneeling on the wet ground in East Hampton’s Most Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery, Reg Cornelia pulled at the grass that had crept over the edges of a sinking grave marker.
Most of the bronze plaque was covered, but the words “World War I” were visible. Cornelia, 67, cut away chunks of the earth with his pocket knife and brushed off the dirt until he could read the entire engraving: “Samuel Williamson, World War I, September 10 1892 - December 6 1967.”
“Is he on the list?” he asked, looking up at fellow Veterans of Foreign Wars member Brian Carabine. Cornelia was referring to the list of buried vets on whose gravestones they were sticking flags for Memorial Day.
Williamson wasn’t on the list, but he was a veteran whose grave had been overlooked for a few years. They gave him a flag.
Since the VFW was first formed after World War II, members of Post 550 in East Hampton and the American Legion in Amagansett have decorated the graves of veterans buried at local cemeteries the week before Memorial Day, Carabine said.
With about 1,000 miniature American flags, the vets begin at 7 a.m. and over the next three hours comb through five cemeteries in the town of East Hampton.
Spread out through the cemetery on Sunday morning, it was like a life-size bingo game as Carabine called out vets' names and members called back if they found their graves.
“It gets a little complicated,” said Joe DeCristofaro, 85, who has been doing this for the past 34 years. He has the locations all but memorized, and he helps point people in the right direction as names are called out — Flynn was near the front, he showed them, and the two Hudsons were set back under a pair of towering trees.
“Salisbury? That’s in the middle there somewhere,” he said. “But I just can’t put my finger on it.”
They don’t always get them all in one try, said Carabine, a veteran of the Vietnam and Persian Gulf wars, and often DeCristofaro returns the next day to double check the list. On the Sunday before Memorial Day, all the members of veteran organizations will return to each cemetery with a rifle squad to fire honors, and in following weeks they’ll collect all the flags.
They consider it a duty — though an enjoyable one — to be fulfilled, rain or shine.
“People always ask if we do it in the rain,” said DeCristofaro, who served in the Navy during World War II and the Korean War. “I say, ‘Did the bullets stop flying in the rain?’”
Cornelia, a Vietnam veteran, said he’s preserving a piece of history with every grave that’s marked by a flag because it means that person and his service will be remembered for at least another year.
“Americans, we want to forget about times of war,” he said. “But it’s important that we remember.”
Carabine said that inevitably each year, the VFW will receive phone calls in the days following the cemetery crawl from people who say they have veterans buried there that didn’t get a flag.
So the search will continue.
“We’ll come out and search for the graves,” he said. “And we’ll find them — especially if people give us hints where they are. We will go out of our way to acknowledge everybody’s service.”