Legion honors veterans’ graves with flags
No parade this year. No marching bands. Crowds lining Main Street. But veterans gathered on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend to continue a tradition that goes back decades in Ridgefield: the honoring of veterans’ graves with small American flags.
“It’ll be over 900 flags,” American Legion Commander George Besse said, strolling with an armful of flags among the graves at St. Mary’s Cemetery.
“We do Branchville Cemetery, Mapleshade, St. Mary’s, Ridgebury.”
The flags were all put out Friday morning, May 22, with Besse and nine other veterans who met at American Legion Hall — the old Titicus Schoolhouse off North Salem Road — spreading out into the nearby Mapleshade and the adjoining Old Town and Fairlawn Cemeteries, as well as St. Mary’s just down the street. Separate details of veterans worked the Branchville and Ridgebury cemeteries.
“Monday would have been a beautiful day for a parade,” said Roger Restaino as the vets gathered in Legion Hall before dispersing into the cemeteries.
“The cemeteries look beautiful,” said George Schuster.
“They mowed St. Mary’s yesterday,” said Besse.
This year’s different — and not just because most of the vets were wearing face masks. Usually the public is invited to join in setting the flags out on veterans’ graves, and those who turn out to help often include young people, school kids, scout troops.
“It’s really enjoyable when we have the scouts and those school groups with us — because the kids really enjoy it,” said Restaino. “So it’s sad not being able to do it with them this year.”
There was one younger volunteer joining the veterans on Friday, Kristofer Klemm, a 21-year-old graduating from Norwich University. Through the university’s Corps of Cadets program he’d earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on May 3.
He was scheduled to leave Sunday for Ft. Benning, GA, where he expected to begin at least eight months of training — infantry officer training first, then Army Ranger School and Airborne School.
He’s not new to the tradition of setting flags out on graves in Ridgefield cemeteries.
“I’ve been doing this nine years now,” said Lt. Klemm, a 2016 Ridgefield High School graduate. “I met Mr. Besse my freshman year of high school.
“It’s just kind of paying it forward,” he said. “The American Legion’s done a lot for me.”
The Legion sent him to Boys’ State, back when he was in high school. And recently, with the university closed due the coronavirus lock-down, Ridgefield’s American Legion Post 78 hosted Klemm’s commissioning ceremony.
And he again joined them in honoring the graves.
“It’s kind of somber,” said the young man about to head off on his own military career. “My last time doing this for a little bit.”
While there was a somber undertone, the vets weren’t melodramatic about it — just a bunch of guys outside on sunny day, with a job to do.
It’s not a difficult task, wandering around in the cemetery with an armful of flags, using a screwdriver to make a hole in the ground, placing a flag by a grave.
But it does require some organization, and there’s a way it’s supposed to be done.
“You place the flag in front of the headstone,” Besse told the group in Legion Hall before they went out into the cemeteries.
Flags misplaced at a grave’s foot-stone end up getting in the way of the people who mow the grass in the cemeteries.
Many of the guys had done it before.
“Chris Trado is over Mapleshade. He’s got a supply of flags,” Besse said. “They have a funeral 2, 3 o’clock in Mapleshade. If a couple of guys could hit that and finish up Mapleshade, it’d be great.”
James Tobin had placed numbers of flags out in the cemeteries at strategic points, along with instruction sheets and diagrams on where veterans’ graves could be found.
“There’s about 40 flags to do in the old section,” he told the group. “It’s there with a diagram.”
More flags and diagrams were waiting at other points, several in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
“You go to Orrico, there’s flags there,” Tobin said, pointing. “John Orrico was killed in Vietnam.”
The graves don’t have to hold war casualties to be honored with a flag. Anyone who served in the military gets one.
“In the service of this country, whether you sign up in peacetime or war, you’re a veteran,” Tobin said. “It’s not your decision whether you go to war.
“I was in during Vietnam,” he said. “I’m considered a Vietnam veteran. I did not go to Vietnam.
“Once you sign up,” he said, “you’re putting your life on the line.”
The hardest part of setting out the flags, really, is finding all the graves — hence the diagrams and instructions.
“We lost again, folks?” said Mike Liberta.”Where’s the map?”
He was working together with George Schuster and John Knoche in St. Mary’s Cemetry.
“Eleven is Costello,” said Schuster. “Three over. We’ve got five in that area.”
They found and placed a flag on the grave of Michael Costello, a veteran of the Civil War who’d died more than three decades after the conflict, July 15, 1896.
Neal Fritz was in the Mapleshade Cemetery, diligently looking for graves that needed flags: Charles Jerman, a World War I veteran; then John W. Holmes, a Civil War veteran who’d died June 15, 1885.
“That’s an old one,” Fritz said.
There were older graves. One belonged to Elijah Smith, who served in the Revolutionary War, and died April 28, 1828.
Tobin said he owed thanks to Donna Barber, the sexton of St. Mary’s Cemetery.
“She gave me a list of the new veterans that are buried here, so we don’t miss people,” Tobin said. “It’s more important if they get a flag. The family is more likely to come by.”
Bob Tulipani, who was American Legion commander for many years before handing the job off to Besse, was setting out flags in an area of St. Mary’s Cemetery, working with his daughter, Kathy Tulipani.
“There’s one over here,” she said.
“She knows the place better than I do,” said her father.
“George,” Tulipani said to Besse, who was working nearby with young Lt. Klemm. “You need one for Howard Hudimatch.”
He pointed to the grave of Hudimatch, a World War II veteran who died June 30, 1999.
Years and years
How far back does the tradition go?
“I’d say guys have been doing this for 30 years — more than that, probably” said Tulipani. “I’ve been doing it 25 years.”
In another section of St. Mary’s Cemetery, Mike Liberta, John Knoche and George Schuster continued working as a trio.
“Knoche,” said Liberta, reading the next name on the instruction sheet from Tobin.
John Knoche looked up: “That might be my grandfather.” he said.