The Kew Gardens World War II Memorial:

Twenty-Seven Local Young Men Who Fought and Died To Be Honored Once Again



The Kew Gardens World War II Memorial

The Kew Gardens World War II Memorial
Left click image to enlarge

Grave of James Topalian at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Grave of James Topalian at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii.

Lt. Cmdr. John M. Bermingham

John Bermingham

[Image from U.S. Naval Academy, Virtual Memorial Hall (Accessed 09/01/19)]

Lt. Cmdr. John M. Bermingham, 84-09 Talbot St., Kew Gardens, was 36 when he died in action while commanding the destroyer, Peary, sunk off Darwin, Australia in February of 1942.

"Eyewitnesses brought back a graphic account of the Peary's last glorious hours; an epic of bravery that ranked with the highest traditions of John Paul Jones and Oliver Hazard Perry."

The Brooklyn Eagle, p. 7 (Apr. 4, 1942).

John Bermingham was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross, which is the U.S. military's second-highest decoration awarded for valor in combat.

by CARL BALLENAS [ 1 ]

At the apex of the garden, in front of The New Homestead Senior Citizen Residence on Grenfell Street, behind some neatly trimmed green hedges and a chain-link fence, is the Kew Gardens World War II Memorial. It is composed of two metal plaques mounted on metal poles. The memorial was dedicated on May 31, 1948 with great fanfare.

[ 1948 dedication of the Kew Gardens World War II Memorial ]

Under a large star, a symbol for those who died in combat, are the names of twenty-seven young men from Kew Gardens who would never come home. Inscribed under their names is a simple prayer, "Peaceful they rest in glory everlasting."

The memorial replaced a large sign, containing the names of all the men and the women from Kew Gardens who served in the war. Helen Day [ 2 ], Jo Ann Raskin and Carl Ballenas, members of the History Committee of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery, along with students from the Aquinas Honor Society of the Immaculate Conception Catholic Academy of Jamaica Estates have begun an intensive research project to discover the stories behind the names that have faded from memory over the years.

The memorial was erected by the American Legion, Kew Gardens Post No. 1374, a post that is no longer in operation. A search was done on every name. Soon, stories of gallantry, courage and bravery came to light. At the present time, a profile exists for twenty-six of the twenty-seven. Some profiles are very brief while others are filled with precise details and even photographs. Only one name has eluded this team of historians, Walter Rothman. It is hoped that someone from the community can help shed some light about this young man, whose story should not be lost.

What has been uncovered so far is truly remarkable. Before the attack on Pearl Harbor, these young men had simple lives. Growing up in the Kew Gardens community, they worshiped at local churches and synagogues, attended local schools including PS 99, the Kew Forest School and Richmond Hill High School. Some lived in private houses, others in apartments. They lived, they worked, and they played on the same streets we walk upon today.

Now that their stories are being told their presence can be felt more strongly. When the United States entered the war, they joined various services of the armed forces, the Marines, Navy, Army and Air Force. Some, were lost at sea, in the Atlantic, and in the Pacific; others fell in battle on European and Asian soils. Some were shot out of the sky. They were staff sergeants, ensigns, privates, a lieutenant commander, an aviation cadet, a lieutenant colonel, corporals and bomber and blimp pilots, All, fought as a band of brothers to protect the liberty we enjoy today.

The first of the twenty-seven to die, was a young man, James Topalian. His family lived on Talbot Street and he and his younger brothers attended PS 99 and the Kew Forest School where he was a member of the school's football, soccer and tennis teams. He went on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and enlisted in the Air Force in 1940.

In a letter sent to his family dated December 3, 1941, James promised Christmas presents to all but had a dread that the United States might soon be at war. James was on Hickman Field, in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 when the Japanese bombers attacked. James died in the attack and he was laid to rest at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawaii. He was 26 years old.
U.S.S Peary under attack at Darwin, AU.

The U.S.S. Peary under attack at Darwin, AU. [Painting by "U-Joe" at DeviantArt (Published May 28, 2016)]

Left click image to enlarge

John Bermingham's widow and two daughters.
John Bermingham's widow, Grace, and two of his daughters, Susan and Sally. [Image from PM (A 1940's New York City newspaper), "Daily Picture Magazine" (Apr. 5, 1942)]

U.S.S. John M. Bermingham (1944)

U.S.S. John M. Bermingham (1944). [Image from NavSource Naval History (Accessed 09/01/2019)]

Left click image to enlarge









Of the twenty-seven who died, only one would return to Kew Gardens. Richard Smith lived with his mother Helen and sister Frances on Metropolitan Avenue. He attended Public School 99 and graduated from Richmond Hill High School. He enlisted in the Naval Air Forces in November of 1942. He was honorably discharged with a medical release in June 1943, and in August of the same year enlisted in the Army and was sent to the Field Artillery Replacement Training Center, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He was killed on December 16, 1944 in action in Germany, about six weeks after he went overseas. Richard was only 26 years old. He was buried in a military cemetery in Europe, but his family requested that his body be brought home. In 1947, he was laid to rest at Maple Grove Cemetery with full military honors.

The names of James Topalian and Richard Smith and the others can be found on the Kew Gardens World War II Memorial plaque, tucked behind the Homestead’s hedges and chain-link fence. For too many years, the memorial has been barely noticed, and the names scarcely read aloud. But, when you read the stories of these men, we enter another dimension of intimacy. They become one of us again, sons of Kew Gardens.

It is the hope of the Friends of Maple Grove to publish a book containing all the stories of these young men so that they are forever preserved, and that a copy given to every library in Queens and beyond so that their heroism will never be forgotten.

In the spring of 2020, tentatively set for Sunday, June 7, a group of living historians will recreate a World War II army camp at Maple Grove Cemetery and will lecture on the life of a soldier in World War II.

Prior to that, at the annual Friends of Maple Grove Spirits Alive event [ 3 ] on Saturday, September 28, 2019, an actor, wearing an authentic uniform from World War II will portray Private Richard Smith. He will tell those who come the story of the Kew Gardens Twenty-Seven.

_______________________________________

[1.]     Carl Ballenas is a local historian and author of books about Richmond Hill, Kew Gardens, Maple Grove Cemetery, Jamaica, and Jamaica Estates. He is Board Chairman and President of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery Inc. and a Board Member of The Richmond Hill Historical Society.

[2.]     Helen Day is Senior Vice President and Secretary of the Friends of Maple Grove Cemetery Inc. and Vice President of The Richmond Hill Historical Society

[3.]    "Spirits Alive,," Sat. 9/28/19, 2 PM – 4:30 PM starting at the Victorian Administration Building just inside the gate at Lefferts Boulevard and Kew Gardens Road. Free Admission. Walk through the Monument Park sections of Maple Grove to see performers in period costumes tell stories of some of our illustrious and noteworthy residents--including a special tribute to the early history of Kew Gardens and World War II soldiers from the community. See, "Spirits Alive" (2007) and "Spirits Alive" (2010)


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