Armed with a priest and a fist full of American flags, four aging warriors honored the more than 7,000 Brooklynites who died in World War II on a different type of battlefield this past Veterans Day — inside a memorial dedicated to the great conflict which the city uses as a glorified storage shed.
Stepping over rolled-up rugs and squirming between boxes and crates filled with cut-up logs, the seniors looked over the large bronze plates adorning the walls inside the memorial at the center of Cadman Plaza Park. The plates held the names of Brooklynites who perished in World War II — many of whom 83-year-old Jack Vanasco and his friends knew.
“I grew up with a lot of the guys on this wall,” Vanasco explained. “Many of them were from my old neighborhood and my brother and I would play ball with them.”
Yet with the exception of Vanasco and his squad, the names aren’t read by anyone anymore, save for the few Parks employees who drop off supplies and materials as they pass through the 250-seat auditorium.
The memorial is usually closed to the public. Vanasco and his team only gained entry after a kind-hearted city Parks employee let them inside to pay their respects on Veterans Day.
“It’s truly a disgrace,” Vanasco said. “People should be coming in here so they can look at these names, but instead the city fills it with junk.”
As Parks commissioner in the 1940s, master planner Robert Moses wanted to put a World War II memorial in each borough. The memorial in Cadman Plaza Park near Pineapple Street in Brooklyn Heights — where statues of a male warrior and a woman and child symbolize victory and family — was the only one ever built.
After its dedication in 1951, Brooklynites flocked to the memorial to pay tribute to fallen neighbors and family members. The building’s auditorium was often used as a meeting place for clubs and civic associations, Vanasco remembered.
But as time passed, fewer and fewer people showed up. The memorial was pretty much forgotten about by the 1980s, when the city began using the granite and limestone building for storage.
Yet a brighter future could be around the corner: The city, which plunked down $2.9 million to revitalize the park three years ago, said it intends to refurbish the memorial once it can secure funding. A group of veterans led by former Borough President Howard Golden is also pushing to have the building turned into a memorial for veterans of all American wars, including Desert Storm and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
That sounds fine to Vanasco and his troop, as long as the borough’s World War II veterans aren’t forgotten in the process.
“A nation is judged on how they treat their veterans,” said Monsignor Louis Elias Milazzo of St. Lucy’s Church on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg, who officiated at Vanasco’s brief service. “The lives of the men and women who sacrificed themselves in a cause for freedom are being disrespected by the condition of this memorial. What does say about us as a nation?”