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Vet honored for keeping Westhampton Beach American Legion branch alive

William Matthews, 87, a Merchant Marine veteran and the legion post's former commander, was considered one of the most dedicated members.

As part of the Westhampton Free Library’s Hometown Heroes program, local and state officials, friends and family came to honor William Matthews, a Merchant Marine and Navy veteran, in a ceremony at the Westhampton Beach Fire Department. Legion members and Westhampton Beach officials said Matthews was instrumental in helping to keep the village’s American Legion post active at a time when its membership was dwindling. (Credit: Newsday / Jean-Paul Salamanca)

A veteran credited with helping to keep Westhampton Beach’s American Legion branch alive was honored Saturday as part of a hometown hero recognition program.

Local and state officials, friends and family came to the Westhampton Beach Fire Department to recognize William Matthews, a Merchant Marine veteran. The Westhampton Free Library’s Hometown Heroes program aims to honor local veterans from the American Legion  each month.

Matthews, 87, enrolled in the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy at Kings Point after he graduated from Lindenhurst High School in 1949. He later entered the Navy as a chief engineer and spent a short time in South Carolina before serving on a minesweeper called the Jacana.

“I enjoyed all of my service in the Navy,” Matthews said. “There wasn’t anything that I didn’t enjoy.”

Matthews served on the ship until it was damaged in a training exercise in North Carolina, and wrapped up his time in the Navy by training on a submarine in New London, Connecticut.

Some time after his honorable discharge, Matthews married Carol Matthews in 1962. They moved to Westhampton Beach in the 1980s.

Mike Berdinka, treasurer of the Arthur Ellis Hamm American Legion Post 834, said when the legion started meeting regularly in Westhampton Beach in 2014, the only members were himself, Matthews and Tom Hadlock, the post’s current commander. With its membership having dwindled at the time, the three would often meet in Matthews’ basement.

Hadlock and Berdinka said Matthews — the legion post’s former commander — was one of the Legion’s most dedicated members, Matthews often juggling different duties with the Legion and taking part in its fundraising events, as well as other community activities such as the Knights of Columbus.

Berdinka noted that membership has grown since then with Matthews and Hadlock’s help.

“If it wasn’t for those two, we wouldn’t be here today,” Berdinka said.

 Today, the Legion post has more than 30 members, according to Berdinka. 

They are temporarily meeting at the firehouse because their former headquarters is not in usable condition. However, there are preliminary discussions about hosting the Legion at a planned community center in the Westhampton Beach area, Southampton Town Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said.  

Westhampton Beach Mayor Maria Moore was on hand Saturday to present Matthews with a proclamation from the village congratulating him for his service.

Moore added that an anonymous donation will make Matthews the first local veteran to have his name engraved on what will be a series of pavers at a future park at the village marina. The site also will have an installation of flags to honor local armed forces veterans.

“He’s been very dedicated all through his life,” Hadlock said of Matthews. “Not just the service, he’s also been an active member here in the community.”

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