Community rallies around DeGlopper Memorial; soldiers killed in action are etched in our hearts
By Michael J. Billoni
Private First Class Charles N. DeGlopper was a 22-year-old United States Army soldier fighting for his country on June 9, 1944, during the Battle of Normandy campaign in World War II when he was compelled to make a split-second decision that ultimately cost him his life as he was killed in action protecting his fellow soldiers.
The Grand Island native was a member of Company C, 325th Glider Infantry, which was advancing to secure a bridgehead across the Merderet River at LaFiere, France. At dawn, the platoon had penetrated an outer line of machine guns and riflemen, but in doing so they had become cut off from the rest of the company. Vastly superior German forces began a decimation of the stricken unit and put in motion a flanking maneuver that would have completely exposed the American platoon in a shallow roadside ditch where it had taken cover.
DeGlopper’s Brave Action
At 6-foot-7, and despite himself coming under increased fire, Pfc. DeGlopper stood up and began to fire his Browning automatic rifle at the attacking Germans in an attempt to suppress their fire and allow his comrades to retreat. Scorning a concentration of enemy automatic weapons and rifle fire, DeGlopper climbed out of the ditch and stood tall on the road in full view of the German enemies. He sprayed the hostile positions with assault fire and, despite being shot and wounded, he continued shooting. Struck again, he began to fall but his sheer determination and fighting spirit allowed him to kneel as he continued firing round after round until, he ultimately was killed on the road.
The Medal of Honor
Despite making the ultimate sacrifice in fighting for his country, DeGlopper was successful in drawing the enemy’s attention away from his fellow soldiers, who continued the fight from a more advantageous position.
Less than two years after DeGlopper was killed in action, President Harry S. Truman, in the name of Congress, awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously to Private First-Class Charles N. DeGlopper. The Medal of Honor is the highest award presented by the U.S. military. On March 10, 1946, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Leland S. Hobbs travelled to Grand Island to present the medal to his father, Charles L. DeGlopper, in a ceremony at Trinity Evangelical United Brethren Church on Whitehaven Road.
Life-sized Statue to Honor DeGlopper
On June 5, 2021, four days shy of the 77th anniversary of his death, DeGlopper will receive the ultimate recognition in his hometown when a life-sized bronze statue will be unveiled at The DeGlopper Memorial, Baseline Road and Grand Island Boulevard, culminating years of planning, hard work and donations of time, in-kind items and cash from veterans, Grand Island residents, Boys and Girl Scouts and Grand Island High School students.
Ray DeGlopper, 80, was a youngster living on his family’s farm when his Uncle Charles went off to war. As a proud veteran and the commander of the American Legion Post 1346 on Grand Island, he is looking forward to the unveiling of the statue, which he has inspected and approved. “I truly appreciate what has been done for my uncle immensely,” he said.
“It’s just fantastic,” said Grand Island Supervisor John C. Whitney, as his eyes watered when reflecting upon what DeGlopper means to the town. “That was the Greatest Generation and to honor our hometown hero, Charles DeGlopper, a Medal of Honor recipient, who gave his life at such a young age to save his company in battle is beyond words. I am so proud of our entire community for coming together on this wonderful project in the center of our town.”
Charles N. DeGlopper Park Dedicated
On Memorial Day 1962, the American Legion Post 1346, appropriated and dedicated Charles N. DeGlopper Park at the intersection of Baseline Road and Grand Island Boulevard. The Killed in Action monument was moved there and the World War II 75-millimeter pack Howitzer Cannon at the southern tip of the park was brought to the Island by George Bower, a veteran and longtime member of the Charles N. DeGlopper Veterans of Foreign War Post 9249. “It is a daily reminder of those who gave up their lives for their country,” Bower said at the time.
There once was a Mobil gas station at the northern end of the park, but its deed was transferred from the DeGlopper Expansion Committee to the DeGlopper VFW Post 9249, which is using its 501c(3) status for the land, which is not referred to as a park any longer, but simply The DeGlopper Memorial. The grass had always been cared for by the Town Parks Department and the Auxiliary of the American Legion, and VFW Post would make sure there were flowers around the KIA Monument.
The Committee Makes Plans
Six years ago, Park Department Director Thomas Dworak and employees Eric Anderson and Jerad Billica began brainstorming ways they could create a more aesthetically pleasing look for the space while still honoring the veterans represented there. After a few meetings local contractor Dan “Double D” Drexelius was brought into the conversation along with members of the local American Legion and DeGlopper Memorial VFW Post. Soon the first committee of the DeGlopper Expansion Committee was formed with Anderson of the Moose Lodge, selected as chairman; Ray DeGlopper, the cousin of Charles, vice chairman (American Legion); Alan Lee, vice chairman (VFW); Fred Wornick, vice chairman (American Legion); James Sharpe, treasury committee, (American Legion), Amy Garten, secretary (Moose), Deb Bota and Dworak, advisers, Dan Robillard, administrative chairman and Drexelius, project manager. Since then, changes have been made to the all-volunteer board, including Chris Taylor as fundraising chairman; Dworak and Wornick have since resigned, and former Town Board member Gary Roesch is representing the VFW and David Castiglia is representing the American Legion as criteria chair verifying the veterans whose names will be placed on the wall. Elsie Martino has taken over the secretarial duties from Garten and former town supervisor and board member Mary Cooke is the committee’s unofficial historian. Also on the committee are Kathie Blake, representing the DeGlopper Post 9249 VFW Auxiliary and Keith Wegrzyn.
Visualizing the Space
When a small group of veterans, parks department staff and Drexelius began meeting, the big question was: “What do we want this space to eventually look like.” That prompted Drexelius to invite Wegrzyn, a Grand Island High School graduate who worked for him during the summers while going to school. He is now general manager of Russo Development Inc., specializing in site work development and he turned out to be a key player in the development of what will be unveiled on June 5.
Before any design work began, the committee unanimously agreed on one vision: A large statue of Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper would be commissioned and they would create as much of the Battle of Normandy as they could with their hometown hero defending his men in action, which are now the local veterans inscribed on the bricks around his statue and on the walls behind him. The list includes 68 Island residents who fought in the Civil War. DeGlopper’s statue would be surrounded by landscaping to replicate the bloody scene of his last heroic battle.
With a background in landscape design and a bachelor’s degree in construction management, Wegrzyn took the ideas that were floated around the table and created a 3D walk through of a potential design for the entire property. Melanie Anderson, an architect from Clarke Patterson Lee, and Mark Mistretta RLA, ASLA, of Villani’s Landscape also created designs that were presented to the board during a meeting in early 2017.
“After showcasing the three designs, we decided I would incorporate small aspects of all three into one 3D model in which we could walk the board through via projection,” Wegrzyn explained during a recent meeting at the DeGlopper VFW Post.
The KIA Monument
In addition to the statue and granite walls inscribed with past and present soldiers, the statue’s base would be in the middle of a star representing the five branches of the military, the Gold Star Mothers, the KIA Monument and a way to showcase each soldier and their story and the cannon. There also would be several flags lining the walls. The board unanimously approved the design and the committee then began working toward an unveiling that was originally scheduled for last June but was originally scheduled for last June but postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Renowned Youngstown sculptor Susan Geissler was commissioned to create the life-sized likeness of DeGlopper. She has spent a considerable amount of time working on each detail of the soldier, including features to his face to “make him look determined,” she said.
Creating the KIA Stories
Once work was assigned for the north end of the property where the statue is being placed, the attention was focused on the KIA monument and how to tell the stories of each of the 17 Grand Island residents killed in action. It was found the plaque on the monument needed to be updated and Drexelius used his connections to have that completed so the list includes veterans from World War I, World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War and Operation Iraqi Freedom. They also decided to have a panel dedicated to an unknown soldier.
“As a group, we decided the Memorial site should also be a memorial for the KIAs as well as all Grand Island veterans,” Anderson said.
“Our objective was easy – we wanted to showcase each soldier, including their picture and their story,” Wegrzyn explained. “The challenge was how we would accomplish that task.”
The result can be seen at the site with the remaining KIA stantions in place well before the unveiling. Accomplishing this task has proved to be a true team effort by many volunteers, with Wegrzyn leading the team. The first order of business was telling the story and locating photos of each soldier on the list. Cooke, Wegrzyn and others were charged with that task and they found it easy to locate stories about the more current soldiers and DeGlopper. Eight from the early wars proved to be a greater challenge, and Cooke is still seeking contact information for family members of several soldiers so they could be contacted about the unveiling.
“This has been a long but wonderful experience,” explained Cooke, the recording secretary for the Historical Society and a recently appointed member of the town’s Historical Preservation Advisory Board. “The research has been extensive, and I feel as if I know each of these men personally. They were very heroic, and it was very tragic on how their lives ended; but what a gift this is for all of us to now learn about each of them.”
Once photos were found and the short stories written, Wegrzyn took them to ASI Signage on Grand Island where Bethany Bernatovicz, Shawna Joslyn and their team refurbished each photo and printed them on an acrylic sheet to assure the photos would last forever. They also designed a way to adhere the pictures onto the bottom panel of the glass. Steve Gorcheck of Frontier Glass on Niagara Falls Boulevard in Amherst provided all of the 1-foot by 2-foot black and clear glass for each panel.
GIHS Students Help the Project
Once ASI attached the photos to the glass, the next challenge was how the stories would be etched onto the plaque. Wegrzyn contacted Carl Koppmann, his former technology teacher at Grand Island High School, and presented his dilemma. Koppmann, the school’s Engineering Technology educator, had the solution. Working with students Ruby Benz, Justin Chadima and others during the 2017-19 school years, they took a clear sheet of glass from Frontier, etched the entire description backwards, flipped the glass and adhered it to what you see today. The school’s English Department proofread all the descriptions before they were etched onto the plaque.
“There was an immense amount of time and effort put into developing a strategy in laser etching onto glass. Working with glass is much different from wood and acrylic, and the tempered glass posed some difficulty,” Wegrzyn explained. “Carl and his students prevailed and found a way to complete the task.
Brian Graham, Ed. D, superintendent of Grand Island Central Schools and a member of the Rotary Club of Grand Island, is extremely proud of the students involved and the role Koppmann and the high school played in this important project. “The Grand Island Central Schools have had a long history of preparing students for a life of civic engagement. Our school system endeavors to ensure that our students take pride in the successes we have had as a country promoting and protecting freedom and democracy here and across the world. We are extremely proud of Keith Wegrzyn, Mr. Koppmann and all of the Technology students who took the time to use their skills to inspire a sincere respect for the sacrifices made by previous generations,” he said.
A Community Endeavor
Frontier Glass then took the two pieces of glass and combined them to create the windowpane affect seen today. Larry Bota and his wife, Deb, of Bota Welding and Fabrication, fabricated and installed all of the stainless steel stands that hold the glass panels. Larry also designed a way to open and close the metal structure, allowing the committee to maintain the glass panel or make any repairs. A team of volunteers dug holes and poured concrete for the stations, and which Bota meticulously angled each one so visitors would not experience too much sun glare or reflections.
“For me, it has been a privilege to work with this amazing committee to build something like this. It has been a humbling experience learning about these heroes from our town,” Wegrzyn said.
“This has been a community endeavor,” Roesch said. “There are so many groups and individuals who have participated in this project, that it has truly been a collaborative effort.”
Drexelius, who was also closely involved with the building of the Miracle League Field on Grand Island, is experiencing the same feelings with this project that he felt when the field for those with disabilities was built in 2010. “Similar to when we were the first community in Western New York to build such a field, everyone we asked for help said yes,” he explained. “That has been happening since we started this project. It has been so humbling being around our great veterans and learning so much about those who gave their lives fighting for what we have today.
“This is truly a project all of Grand Island can be proud of forever. So many Island residents played a part, from coming out and volunteering to roll the sod, to sweeping the sidewalks to writing a check for a few dollars, they all have helped, and we are so appreciative of them,” he added.
How to Donate to the Memorial
The project has a budget of $750,000 and according to Taylor they still to raise $170,000. “The major items have been secured financially, so we are ready to unveil the statue, but the remaining dollars will allow us to complete our overall vision of the DeGlopper Memorial and we are confident donations will continue to come,” explained Taylor, a veteran who owns Certified AutoBrokers on Grand Island Boulevard and whose uncle, Philip C. Taylor, was killed in action during the Vietnam War.
Details on donating to the DeGlopper Memorial can be found at the bottom of the KIA display on Page 2 in today’s Island Dispatch. The Island Dispatch will publish the photo of the 17 KIAs and the Unknown Soldier each Friday through June 4, the day before the DeGlopper statue is unveiled.
The men on the DeGlopper Expansion Committee stand at the DeGlopper Memorial. They are, from left, former Town Board member Gary Roesch; Robert Haag; former Deputy Town Supervisor James Sharpe; Ray DeGlopper, nephew of Charles DeGlopper and vice president (American Legion); Chairman Erik Anderson of the Moose Lodge; Alan Lee, vice chairman (VFW); project manager Dan Drexelius; Joe Mesmer; Keith Wegryzyn, who has spearheaded the effort to place the Killed In Action plaques at the memorial; Dan McMahon; and former Councilman Dan Robillard, administrative chairman. (Photo by Karen Carr Keefe)
DeGlopper Committee seeks information on Veterans
Killed in Action
The DeGlopper Memorial Expansion Committee is seeking help from the community to obtain contact information leading to family or friends of the following Grand Island Veterans Killed in Action since World War I:
• Edward P. Pierce, WWI
• Francis K. Goodchild, WWII
• Howard W. Salton, WWII
• Charles A. Smith, WWII
• George E. Smith, WWII
• Albert J. Keppler, Korea
• George H. Kinney, Korea
• Joseph A. L’Huillier, Vietnam
The committee would like to have representatives of each hero present at the formal dedication ceremony at the site on June 5.
Please contact Mary Cooke with any information. Call or text 716-255-5838, email [email protected], or snail-mail to 775 North Colony Road, Grand Island, NY 14072.