People in attendance at the 31st Annual Memorial Day observation hosted by the Broadview-Hillside American Legion Post 626 at the Veterans Memorial in Hillside place flowers at the memorial wreath on Monday. | Michael Romain
Monday, May 30, 2022 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews
Sgt. James T. Lee, born Aug. 29, 1920, in Berkeley, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps in 1941. Lee, a graduate of Sunnyside Grade School and Proviso Township High School (now Proviso East in Maywood), was trained at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis before joining a fighter bomber squadron in the U.S. Air Force.
Lee flew nearly 100 bombing missions over France and Germany before his plane, which had been flying in heavy fog, crashed into a hillside in France on Sept. 11, 1944, according to information on the online Bataan Project. In 1946, 56th Avenue in Berkeley was renamed Lee Avenue in Sgt. Lee’s honor.
On Monday, Sgt. Lee’s nephew and Berkeley’s current village president, Robert Lee, gave a heartfelt tribute to his uncle and six other Berkeley residents who lost their lives while serving the country.
“He was an uncle that myself and my brothers and sisters never knew, and a brother-in-law my mother never knew,” President Lee said during the village’s annual Memorial Day commemoration held at Veterans Memorial Corner in Berkeley.
Jerele Avenue, formerly 51st Avenue, was renamed in honor of Pvt. Harry Jerele, who was in the Bataan Death March in the Philippines and died in a Japanese prison camp in 1942.
Sgt. Norman F. Spencer, also died in the Philippines in a Japanese prison camp after the Bataan Death March. Spencer Avenue is named after him.
Speechley Boulevard, Norris Avenue, McDermott Drive, and Kouba Drive are also named after Berkeley men who died in the service: Pvt. Charles W. Speechley, George Norris, Donald McDermott and James Kouba, respectively.
“That’s quite a number for such a small town,” Lee said. Berkeley has about 5,000 residents.
After honoring the dead, Lee honored the living, namely four members of the American Legion Post 1016 Berkeley Post, which helps host the annual remembrance.
The living honorees included Post 1016 Commander John P. Asaro, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force in 1974.
“America’s forces are the best equipped, best trained and most motivated military in the world,” Commander Asaro said during brief comments.
“It’s my hope, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that our wisdom will grow with our power,” he said. “The less we use our power, the greater it will be. The dedication of our armed forces is unwavering. We must give justice to their sacrifice by making sure that justice is always our nation’s cause.”
Berkeley Village President Robert Lee delivers remarks at the village’s annual Memorial Day commemoration on Monday. Lee honored four members of the American Legion Post 1016 Berkeley Post. Shown from front to back: Ted Quednau, Robert Novak, Peter Hudson and John P. Asaro. | Michael Romain
Peter Hudson, Post 1016’s chaplain, is the son and father of soldiers. His father, a World War II veteran, “was blown out of his tank in the Battle of the Bulge” and his son was killed while serving in the Middle East.
The other honorees included Ted Quednau, Post 1016’s senior vice commander and its former commander, and Robert J. Novak, a Green Beret who earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart while serving four tours in the Vietnam War.
For Novak and other Vietnam War veterans, Memorial Day services like the one in Berkeley on Monday are complicated, bittersweet affairs.
“When someone comes up to me, because of my hat pins or shirt or jacket and says, ‘Thank you for your service,’ I graciously say, ‘You’re welcome,’” said President Lee, reading a statement written by Novak.
Hillside Mayor Joe Tamburino at the 31st Annual Memorial Day observation hosted by the Broadview-Hillside American Legion Post 626 on Monday. | Michael Romain
“Inside, I want to say, ‘Where was that thank you 55 years ago when we came home,” Lee, channeling Novak, said. “The hardest one was in 1974, going to join the VFW and being told, ‘Sorry son, you’re not a veteran of a foreign war.’ Vietnam was declared a war by Congress in 1975, after the 20-year police action that it was for many years before 1975.”
Lee said the village honored Novak and the other living veterans as a way of honoring all of those who fought for the country. Those who didn’t enlist in the armed forces, Lee said, can still serve.
“We all just give some, we all give some in memory of those who gave all,” he said. “We all give some to our community and to our local police and fire agencies. It doesn’t take much to help a neighbor and to help or thank a veteran. That’s really the biggest message we here at home can carry forward today.”
That message resonated as Olivia Alexandra Rose Turrano, designated the day’s Poppy Queen, handed out sold red poppies around town in order to raise funds to support veterans, military personnel and their families.
Olivia Alexandra Rose Turrano, the Poppy Queen, hands out red poppies alongside her great-grandmother, Marian Quednau, during Monday’s Memorial Day commemoration. | Michael Romain
The red poppy, according to a Legion website, is “a nationally recognized symbol of sacrifice worn by Americans since World War I to honor those who served and died for our country in all wars.” May 27 is National Poppy Day, an annual commemoration founded by the American Legion Auxiliary in 1920.
Roughly a half-hour later, Lee’s message also resonated a few blocks away, at the 31st Annual Memorial Day observation hosted by the Broadview-Hillside American Legion Post 626, held at the Veterans Memorial in Hillside Commons, 425 Hillside Ave.
“We need help [teaching people] the true meaning of this day,” said Hillside Mayor Joe Tamburino, an Army veteran who also served in Vietnam. “It’s not a holiday. It’s not a day to party and carry on. It’s a day to sit down and think about the price that people have paid.”