Tag Archives: Memorial Day

Memorial Day: A Service Member Speaks

Justin Polayes is a 2004 Staples High School graduate. Unlike many of his classmates, he entered the military. This Memorial Day, he reflects on that life — and this day.

As a kid in Westport, Memorial Day was a great time. I walked in the parade as a Little Leaguer, Boy Scout, Bedford Middle School band member, what have you.

The holiday was the start of when dinners moved to the back yard, and life happened at Compo Beach. It was a safe, happy, relaxing day, without much thought of its origins.

A classic Westport Mmeorial Day photo. (Photo/Doris Ghitelman)

In college the holiday was much of the same. It was about summer starting, and usually a road trip home for cookouts and to see family and friends. As a young adult I became a bit more aware of what Memorial Day means. I saw wreaths being laid, tributes on TV, and more on social media.

But it wasn’t until 2 years into my military career that Memorial Day really meant something for me.

My first holiday came in the middle of grueling training and selection. I used that extra day to sleep and rest some injuries.

However, by that second Memorial Day as an active duty member I had already lost friends in combat. It was like a light switch flipped. The entire meaning of the holiday changed. Cookouts and beach lounging were replaced with visiting graves and “memorial workouts” to honor my fallen brothers and sisters.

Justin Polayes (left) spent one Memorial Day on duty in East Africa.

While living in the United Kingdom, the difference between our Memorial Day and their Remembrance Day was noticeable. I lived in a great little town surrounded by families with little children. All the kids wore red poppy pins on their shirts. On Remembrance Day, most families without any military affiliation went to a national military cemetery or war memorial. At the very least almost everyone watched the queen lay a wreath at the Cenotaph (war memorial in London). Once their respects were paid, cookouts and garden parties could begin.

For the last 5 years I’ve been based in Washington D.C. I live only a few miles from Arlington National Cemetery. My Memorial Day tradition now isn’t parades or beach cookouts; it is paying respects to friends.

In lots 62 and 65 alone, my wife (who also served) and I have 19 friends and fellow service members laid to rest. Walking those hallowed grounds on Memorial Day is a true pleasure, something everyone should experience in their lifetime. Politics go out the window. Petty gripes and complaints about daily life mean nothing. You feel small in the face of so many white marble headstones.

Arlington National Cemetery (Photo/Justin Polayes)

There is nothing wrong with how Westport celebrates Memorial Day. However, as a former resident looking inward from afar it does seem the celebrations are more about what we have and not about what we lost.

Westporters have given their lives in service for this country since the founding of our country. A handful are still in harm’s way today. Please take a moment to remember those heroes this Memorial Day.

And please teach the younger generation why.

Youngsters play at Veteran’s Green, after Westport’s 2018 Memorial Day ceremony. (Photo/Ted Horowitz)

Lt. Col. Armas’ Compelling Memorial Day Video

On 9/11, Thomas Armas was a Marine. When the World Trade Center collapsed, most people ran for their lives. He ran toward it. Marines, he says simply, are trained to help.

Lt. Col. Armas went on to serve 3 tours of duty, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Last week, he told his story on our high school’s TV show, “Good Morning Staples.”

Videos featuring service members are a Memorial Day tradition at Staples. Students in TV Production class spend long hours interviewing; selecting photos and music, and weaving together a compelling, instructive film, which is shown in every class.

The iconic photo of Thomas Armas, carrying a wounded woman from the World Trade Center.

This year’s video is one of the best.

With gentle prodding from senior JJ Mathewson, Armas describes that day at Ground Zero, and life in war zones.

But just as compelling are his insights into what it all means.

“People don’t give their lives for their country,” Armas says. “They give it for their hometowns.” That means, he explains, that Americans should have fun on Memorial Day. Going to the beach, a ballgame or barbecue is exactly why men and women have given their lives: so we can enjoy life.

However, he adds, we also have an obligation to give back.

Lt. Col. Thomas Armas during his “Good Morning Staples” interview.

As a Rye native — growing up in an environment very similar to Westport — he “was given the best childhood a person could have.” He gave back what he could by joining the military. He tells Staples students they don’t have to do that — but they should find some way to contribute to their community and their country, using their time and talents to better the lives of others.

The Staples Media Lab’s 2012 Memorial Day video is vitally important. It’s well researched, loving produced and richly rewarding.

It takes less than 15 minutes to watch.

But the lessons may last a lifetime.

Click below to view:

Planting Flags, Unearthing History

A Westport parent writes:

Dan, thanks for sharing stories about Westport’s Vietnam veterans.  It is essential for younger generations to be reminded of the bravery and sacrifices of our own townspeople.

I have to share with you the sense of pride expressed by the Westport Boy Scouts who spent 4 hours yesterday distributing flags to the graves of veterans all over town.

The Scouts were proud to honor these brave men and women, whose sacrifices helped safeguard our nation and allow it to grow in prosperity and security.

Assumption Cemetery on Green’s Farms Road looks great, thanks to local Boy Scouts.

To me, it was an incredibly important reminder of how history comes alive for our young people, and how much they marvel at and appreciate the sacrifices of those who came before them. I thank the VFW and Scout leaders for giving them this opportunity.

Some newer Scouts were surprised to discover that such a large number of Westporters have served our country in the armed forces, and wondered how many untold stories could be shared with their generation.  The boys also were impressed to see the physical resting sites of Wheelers and Sherwoods, and the founders of Staples and Bedford, whose contributions also resonate so strongly in their everyday lives.

We will visit the Westport Historical Society to find more information to answer their questions. And hopefully, when we march tomorrow morning, the boys will have the chance to talk with the veterans who, because of their service to our nation, are able to participate in the well-earned festivities.

Memorial Day To-Do List

Things to do tomorrow:

  1. Go to Memorial Day parade.
  2. Watch veterans, cops, bugle corps, kids/grandkids/random kids march; cheer for all.
  3. Gather entire family. Go to Veteran’s Green opposite Town Hall; find grassy spot.
  4. Turn off cell phone. Listen to speeches.
  5. Really, really listen to speeches.
  6. Find a veteran. Thank him or her.
  7. Go home. Enjoy the rest of the day.
  8. Oh, yeah. Pause from time to time to reflect.

Al Hofacker’s Letters Home

Thursday’s post on Lance Corporal Tim Barmmer — the Staples grad killed in Vietnam — brought an email from Mary Gai.

Al Hofacker, in the 1969 Staples yearbook.

She remembers Al Hofacker. A member of Staples’ Class of 1969, he too served in Vietnam.

Al was more fortunate than Tim. He made it home.

Like Tim, Al’s letters home are available online (at Military.com). Here are some excerpts:

April 1, 1971

Dear Mom and Dad,

Well, the party’s over. They’re sending me back out to the bush tomorrow. I’ll be at CAP 2-7-6. Lt. Grebenstein called me up on top of a bunker this morning and had me test fire a 40mm automatic grenade launcher. He wants me to take it out to CAP 6 and add some firepower.

The thing weighs a ton. You carry it in front of your chest held by a sling. It’s got a magazine that holds 12 HE (high explosive) grenades and you can fire it semi or auto. The Lieutenant’s sending a guy named Cooper out with me to carry my ammo. He’s REAL happy about that.

I’m not real crazy about going back out but I’ll take care of myself. Thanks for the care package with the stuff from Joyce in it. Tell her thanks. Remember staring tomorrow my address is CAP 2-7-6.

Love,
Big Al

——————————–

April 4, 1971

Dear Mom and Dad,

Here we go again. We got hit by a couple of RPG rounds last night walking down this trail they call “Frag Alley”. The rounds went right through our column and exploded behind us, but we all turned and opened up on the trees. You couldn’t see anything, it was almost dark. I fired off two rounds from the auto-bloop and got tree bursts and had to cease-fire and just sit it out because I don’t have a sidearm.

A photo posted on the page with Al’s letters, on Military.com.

Nobody got hurt and we never found the dinks. But I got on the radio to 7th Company this morning and told them I wanted a rifle because the auto-bloop ain’t worth a damn anywhere there are trees. So they came and picked it up and now I’ve got a 16 again. There’s just too much bamboo out here.

Most of the guys here are pretty cool. I’m hanging in there. Would really like a hamburger right now. Take care, I’ll write soon.

Love,
Al The Kat

—————————-

April 10, 1971

Dear Mom and Dad,

This afternoon we were out on patrol with Sgt. Tingen and we spotted 3 people sitting on a rice paddy dyke in green uniforms, two men and a woman. Our PF’s told us they were VC so we got behind them in a treeline without them seeing us.

Then Sgt. Tingen stood up and opened fire and we all opened up and killed all three. It kind of made me sick. They didn’t have weapons. Joe Nielson was with me and he’s been low all day. There was a lot of horsing around and joking about the whole thing that didn’t sit right with me. But when the PFs say they’re VC, you gotta take them at their word, cuz we sure as hell don’t know. And if they don’t have weapons on them right then, that doesn’t mean they won’t be shooting at you later.

There sure is a lot of B.S. over here. I hope 2nd CAG gets pulled out soon. Tell Jeff Hunn I appreciate the letters and I’m glad he’s been coming over to visit. He’s the only friend I have who hasn’t written me off as a dead guy.

Love,
Alan

————————-

April 23, 1971

Dear Mom and Dad

I’M OKAY! I’M FINE! I don’t know what you have heard or what you haven’t heard but I’M GOING TO BE OKAY! I’m at the Army 95th Evac Hospital in Danang with a small grenade fragment in my face, had a piece taken out of my scalp, and a few pieces in my leg, but I’m okay. I don’t want you to worry. I’m not crippled, I didn’t lose anything important. I didn’t lose anything period. I don’t know and nobody can seem to tell me if they notify next of kin when you get wounded, so I wanted to write and let you know I’m fine.

We got hit bad on frag alley 2 nights ago and we got our asses WAXED by about 4 or 5 VC who’d got into the bamboo around us when we were sitting around at our Charlie Pappa 1 (check point one) and they just started lobbing grenades in on us over the trees. Just handfuls of frags that kept going off. It was unbelievable. Just about everybody got hit. I got hit, Ward got hit, the Corpsman was running around with a piece in his stomach, Henkle got hit bad, one of the PF’s got his eye blown out. It was insane. We had about 4 walking wounded (including me) and about 4 stretcher cases and we had to go about a click to get up to Hiway 1 where they could bring choppers down to get us out. Sgt. Tingen wasn’t with us. He was with the Alpha team who ran a react for us. We got up there finally and two Hueys came down on the road about 20 minutes later and they had some Cobra gunships work over the place with miniguns.

So anyway, I’ve been probed and X-rayed and picked at and had my trousers cut off, but I’ll be out of here in a week or so. PLEASE DON’T WORRY. I’m just fine and the food sucks. I’ll write again soon.

Love,
Al The Kat

(To read all of Al Hofacker’s letters on Military.com, click here.)

Lance Corporal Timothy Barmmer, And The Vietnam Plaque

The World War I and II memorials across from Town Hall are impressive. This weekend — as we honor our veterans — they’ll get their well-deserved share of attention.

But nearby lies a smaller, less-noticed plaque. This one salutes 5 Westporters killed in Vietnam. Timothy M. Barmmer (Marine Corps), Michael B. Paquin and Stephen A. Shortall (Army) and Frederick M. Rader III and Francis A. Walsh (Air Force) are cited for their “honorable service in Southeast Asia, in the face of uncommon adversity.”

Westport’s Vietnam Memorial, opposite Town Hall.

In January 1968 — more than a year after arriving in  Vietman — Tim Barmmer wrote to his parents in Westport:

Listen, I’m sorry I’ve waited so long, but I went to Bangkok for 7 days, and when I got back we were pretty busy.

I guess you’ve heard a lot about Khe Sanh on the news & stuff, but DON’T WORRY! I’ll be honest, we’ve been getting hit with rocket & artillery every day, & they’ve surrounded us, but if you’ve seen the support we get, you’d feel as good as I do.

We have built a bunker so good, NOTHING could get through it — believe me.

Lance Corporal Tim Barmmer

We have jets bombing the area every 15 minutes, gunships, & B52 bombers every day. Feel a little better? I have not been SCRATCHED. The American flag flies atop our hole, unscathed!

We call ourselves the “glorious untouchables” and we’ve been put in for two more medals. How about that?

I’m pretty sure they’ll be pulling us out after all this is over, ’cause we’ve lost about 40 in a month — maybe we’ll go to Okinawa or something!

Bangkok was REALLY GREAT! I’m gonna go back there some day — met some really good people there. Thailand people are really friendly & good to Americans. It was terrific R&R!

I have a lot of work to do. Take care of yourself, and remember – I AM FINE — morale is terrific, and the guys are fighting their hearts out. Keep praying as I am, and we’ll keep fighting for you.

I made TV carrying a wounded News Coresspondent down the street — look for me on CBS! How about that?

Don’t worry, please. Give my love to all, and I’ll see you in 4 1/2 months. Love you all,
Tim.

Two days later — on January 30, 1968 — Lance Corporal Timothy M. Barmmer was killed by enemy fire. He was 20 years old.

Tim Barmmer’s company.

A recon corpsman said, “He died in my arms. He died trying to get someone else in the bunker during incoming… Tim was literally throwing people in (the bunker).  Shrapnel got to him.”

Later, Tim’s parents received a letter from a woman named Viola Howes. Her son Roger had often written about Tim — his best friend, and someone who “made this place bearable.”

This time, Roger wrote about his best friend’s death. Viola wanted another mother to read Roger’s words:

Yesterday evening we were sitting in our bunker eating C rations and a rocket came in about 3 feet from it. Huck (Tim’s nickname), Doc, Mac and Zeke were outside heating chow. Huck tried to push them in like the big stupid loveable guy he was and took the blast and was killed instantly. The other 3 are in serious condition and sent back to the States.

My God, what a dear friend we’ve lost, Huck was big and big hearted, he could be gruff yet gentle. We loved him like a brother and he left an impression that could never be forgotten. Everyone in our company could not help but like him. He was first to help a new guy coming in. He was the first one to welcome me here. This place can never be the same without him.

God has some purpose in it I know, but Oh God, we will miss him. Could you do me a very great favor and have a Mass said for Huck. His name is Timothy Barmmer. Thanks Mom, so much.”

Timothy Barmmer’s name is engraved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC. It’s panel 35E, Row 65.

His name lives forever, too, in the much smaller — but no less significant — Vietnam veterans’ plaque opposite Town Hall, right here in Tim Barmmer’s hometown.

Happy Memorial Day 2010!

Eating and parade-watching at the Carpenters' on Myrtle Avenue.

Everyone takes part in Westport's Memorial Day parade: veterans, marching bands, civic organizations, young athletes, church groups -- and the town's septic education task force.

America's Memorial Day meets the global economy.

At the Memorial Day ceremony (from left): First Selectman Gordon Joseloff, and grand marshals George Marks Jr. and Sr. (though it's hard to tell which is which).

Staples bugler Cameron Bruce plays "Taps" at the Memorial Day service.

Memorializing Tania Long

Today, Westport honors our veterans.

After the Memorial Day parade there will be speeches across from Town Hall.  A wreath will be laid; “Taps” will echo.

If your MO is to bolt as soon as your Little Leaguer or Brownie marches by — try something different.  Stay; head over to the ceremony.  It’s the least you can do to honor those who served our country.

You’ll be inspired — and so will your kids.

Tania Long

On Veterans Green, check out the World War II memorial.  Read the names of hundreds of Westporters.  Think about what they — and so many others in town — sacrificed, so we can watch a parade, have a picnic, enjoy ourselves.

I don’t know whether “Tania Long” is on that list.   She was a war correspondent for the New York Times.

But look at her photo — she’s in uniform.   The picture was taken in London on February 1, 1943.

“06880” reader Charlie Taylor spotted this on the National Archives website.  It lists her hometown:  Westport, Conn.

I have never heard Tania Long’s name before.  I don’t know anything about her life here — if she went to Staples; what she wrote; whether she came back to Westport after the war.

Or if she came back anywhere.

I don’t know Tania Long at all.  But today is her day, as much as every veteran’s.

I’ll be thinking of her.

(If you’ve got any information about Tania Long, click “Comments” at the top or bottom of this post.)

Staples Honors Memorial Day

The Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce celebrated Memorial Day weekend with an ad from a lawyer soliciting business for DWI arrests.

Staples High School did it right.

“Good Morning Staples” — the student-produced TV show that airs in classrooms and hallways around the school — departed from its usual fare of artsy announcements and offbeat interviews on Thursday.  The entire 14 minutes was devoted to 2 combat veterans:  Rich Franzis and Bruce Allen.

Franzis — a popular assistant principal, and a reservist — returned last year from a tour of duty in Iraq.

Allen — a longtime Westport resident and special policemen — served decades ago, in World War II.

Prompted by English instructor Dan Geraghty — who served active duty with the 10th Mountain Division, then was an infantry officer with the National Guard — the 2 men talked quietly and honestly about many things:  going over, and coming home.  Honoring dead comrades and friends.  What Memorial Day means today.

Franzis’s and Allen’s experiences were vastly different — and compellingly similar.  They did not glamorize war — in fact, Allen called all wars futile.

They did something even more important:  They made every Staples student think about what this weekend signifies.

Let’s hope they’re not the only ones.

(Click here to see the “Good Morning Staples” Memorial Day tribute — it may take a while to load.  If that doesn’t work, click here first, then on the flag.)