At the start of our engagement, local boys went off to war with rousing support from an enthusiastic press and public. “41 More Sons of Woodhaven Gayly Go To War” was an actual headline in the Leader-Observer in November 1917.
But by May of the following year, the war began to take its toll on locals. At first there were a few isolated casualties, but as the weeks wore on, readers of the local papers would nervously look at each week’s headlines to see the latest news and grim announcements that more local boys had been killed.
The first recorded death from Woodhaven was Chief Boatswain’s Mate Frederick Zahn of Rector Avenue (now 77th Street). Zahn never made it overseas, dying instead in Fort Lyons, Colorado, of “disease.”
Ironically, though he was the first reported casualty, he is last (alphabetically) on the monument that sits outside American Legion Post 118 today.
One of the soldiers sent overseas was Corporal Alfred Cocquelet of Willard Avenue (now 96th Street). One month after being sent overseas, his Infantry (the 325th) was selected by King George of England to be reviewed in a military parade. His Infantry was hosted at Buckingham Palace by Princess Mary.
A few months afterwards, Corporal Cocquelet was killed in action in the Meuse-Argonne offensive.
One of the more famed casualties was Arthur Engels, who lived on Jamaica Avenue and was well-known around the neighborhood for his early morning long distance runs.
He made headlines at teha ge of 17, smashing world hurdling records at races in Madison Square Garden. He earned the nickname “King of the Eastern Hurdlers.”
Engels lived at 4088 Jamaica Avenue, right off Woodhaven Boulevard, above what would later be known as Carlo’s Pizza. Less than one year after racing at the Garden, Engels was badly wounded in action, developing gangrene in his right leg.
Doctors amputated his leg in an attempt to save his life, but he died shortly afterwards.
There were many such stories coming back from overseas, not only to Woodhaven families but to all communities around the United States. By the time peace was declared on November 11, 1918, 70 young men from Woodhaven had lost their lives.
These 70 young men would have been teachers and civic leaders and important members of our community. Instead, their lives were cut short and the community suffered and mourned and made plans for a memorial.
One of the most unique tributes to the fallen young men of Woodhaven was the Memorial Trees of Forest Park. One tree was planted in the name of each young soldier from Woodhaven, and every year each family would decorate their loved one’s tree.
Over time, the tradition faded away. But the trees remained, their purpose long forgotten until it was rediscovered by the Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society a few years ago.
Since then, the trees have been decorated each Memorial Day, paying tribute to those young men. And we were able to get the street co-named to Forest Park Memorial Drive.
But when you walk among these trees, you feel sadness and anger and embarrassment. The sidewalks are a disgrace, busted and crumbling and broken. For large sections, there is no sidewalk at all.
The city is aware of its status as a war memorial, but has made no move to treat it with the respect those 70 young men deserve.
Out of sight, out of mind.
Keep this in mind when the city talks about expanding Forest Park. For if this is how they treat this sacred part of the park, how well maintained will any expansion be? I think we know the answers to that.
We hope that someday the living memorial that was planted 100 years ago will be worthy of the young men it was dedicated to. Sadly, on the anniversary of the end of the Great War, it is not.