Fifty years after his death, his family reached out to local historian Ed Wendell to see if he had any information about Schmitt. Wendell searched but kept getting nowhere, until he came across a small wooden cross bearing Schmitt’s name in the Garden of Remembrance of American Legion Post 118 on 91st Street and 89th Avenue.
Every member of the Post who has passed gets their own cross or Star of David, and since the Post’s founding in 1920, the garden has grown to 600 wooden crosses and stars.
“It was a symbol that we remember,” Wendell recalls. “And that’s the whole point of Memorial Day, to remember. So I told this family that they might not have known it, but we remember.’”
Not only does the Post remember their fallen members by adding their name to the garden, but every year, they host a solemn ceremony to make others aware of that sacrifice.
“I know people want to celebrate Memorial Day weekend because it’s part of the summer,” said Dan Valentin, who recently retired from the Army after 39 years. “But if they can take the period of memorial and then for the celebration part dedicate it to someone who made the ultimate sacrifice, that’s what our goal is.”
Monday’s ceremony featured a benediction, presentation of memorial wreaths, and singing, but perhaps the most striking part was a speech by John Lawless, Legion commander and veteran who served during the Vietnam War.
Lawless noted that the 75th anniversary of D-Day is quickly approaching, and lamented all the political arguments that dominate the 24-hour news cycle.
“Labels that we hurl today, like ‘Democrat, Republican, Red State, Blue State’ matter little when you’re facing mines and machine gun fire while charging a beach,” he said. “Politics are irrelevant to a family that hears the words, ‘we regret to inform you.’”
One of the ways we can honor the sacrifice of the fallen, Lawless said, is to care for those they loved the most.
“As Americans, we should all remember that freedom isn’t free,” he said. “It’s only possible because our fallen heroes have paid a high price.”
In March, a memorial for Father Lawrence Edward Lynch, an Irish-American priest who tended to wounded soldiers during World War II and was killed at the Battle of Okinawa, was rededicated.
This year, the Post decided to add him as an honorary member.
“His name will be part of our memorial garden and be remembered by us each year,” Lawless said.
“This ceremony is part of being American,” Wendell added. “What they do here every year with these markers is absolutely phenomenal.”