By Michael J. Billoni
It was an emotionally charged, patriotic, somber and extremely well-orchestrated military tribute to veterans. The unveiling of a life-sized statue of Pfc. Charles N. DeGlopper in his hometown occurred in front of a large crowd with great fanfare on Saturday, June 5.
Toward the end of the two-hour program, Robert Praties, a lone bag piper playing “Amazing Grace,” slowly marched on a gravel path from the KIA Monument, stopping in front of the 7-foot bronzed statue of the World War II hero, which was covered with a parachute.
Quietly, DeGlopper’s nephews, Ray, Charles, Earl and George, along with Mike Bell, whose grandmother was the hero’s sister, surrounded the granite base and carefully removed the covering to a thunderous applause. As the five men returned to join 50 family members, sculptor Susan Geissler smiled as she knew her goal was achieved.
“This was a very emotional project for me and the family because it was so important that we portrayed this young war hero as he was on that fateful day in Normandy when his actions saved his troop,” she explained during a reception afterward at the Charles N. DeGlopper VFW Post 9249.
Ray DeGlopper, commander of American Legion Post 1346 on Grand Island and vice chairman of the DeGlopper Post Expansion Committee, presented the closing remarks on behalf of his family. Knowing what went into the volunteer committee’s five-year journey that culminated with the unveiling, his well-crafted remarks could have been summarized in two statements, “We did it!” and “Thank you!”
Photos by Robert Haag
He eloquently described how this project became a collaborative effort of the Island’s VFW, American Legion, Loyal Order of Moose No. 180 and town officials discussing ways to beautify the DeGlopper Memorial site at Baseline Road and Grand Island Boulevard.
Eric Anderson of the Moose Lodge was selected as chairman. Dan Drexelius was chosen as property manager and he led the effort to have the vacant Exxon Mobile property donated to expand the memorial grounds. The committee then began monthly meetings. Chris Taylor of Certified AutoBrokers chaired the committee, charged with raising $750,000. Keith Wegrzyn, a Grand Island High School graduate and general manager of Russo Development, spearheaded the effort to design the grounds.
A major effort began by updating the Killed in Action monument at the southern end of the property to include those lives lost in the Vietnam War and Operation Iraq Freedom. Wegrzyn and former Supervisor Mary Cooke led a committee that took those 17 names and found photos and a short biography so their stories could be presented on their own metal and glass statue.
That required a number of volunteer efforts, including ASI Signage on Grand Island, Frontier Glass in Niagara Falls and Grand Island High School’s engineering technology teacher Carl Koppmann. Since, 2017 Koppmann and students took a clear sheet of glass from Frontier, etched the entire description backward, and flipped the glass to what you see there today. Larry Bota of Bota Welding then mounted each plaque on a steel pole and placed them in concrete around the original statue.
Cooke and others worked tirelessly to find the historical information on the veterans along with locating the names of the 68 Islanders who served in the Civil War and now have stones engraved in an area designated for them. In addition, there is a wall at the north end of the property that lists all Island veterans.
DeGlopper thanked the entire committee and recognized the unveiling committee chairs, Debbie Bota and Elsie Martino, for their tireless efforts to ensure the event was flawless. He then turned his attention to the statue.
“Bringing Charlie back to life was due to the exceptional talent of two people” he said before recognizing Ralph Sirianni of the Town of Tonawanda for the life-like drawing of DeGlopper, and acclaimed Youngstown sculptor Geissler.
In closing, DeGlopper thanked the community for its assistance in financial donations and time spent working at the site. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” he concluded to a standing ovation.
Maj. Gen. David Conboy (Ret.) of Grand Island served as master of ceremony and opened with eloquent words about Charles DeGlopper, saying his heroic actions during the Normandy Invasion on June 9, 1944, earned him the Congressional Medal of Honor – DeGlopper was the only member of the 82nd Airborne Division in Normandy to receive one.
“After serving 33 years in military service, I have seen many of the tributes to him, but it is great to see this one in our hometown,” Conboy said to a loud applause.
Ellen Trainham sang the national anthem and Kevin Rustowicz led the Pledge of Allegiance.
A tribute to Gold Star Mothers was read, and a wreath for the Civil War veterans was presented by chaplain Philip G. Cook, Camp No. 223 of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War; and Lodema Strickland, of Tent 56 of the daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War.
Representatives of the families of the 17 KIAs or members of the military read the short bios of each amazing story of valor and heroism. The 18th stantion around the KIA monument is for the Unknown Soldier and its artwork was drawn by Morgan Schaefer as a Girl Scout project. She read a heartfelt story about the Unknown Soldier.
Alan Lee, vice chairman of the committee and commander of the DeGlopper VFW Post, presented the prayer to the fallen. Fife and drum players led the post’s color guard into position for a rifle salute before Mark Hughes performed taps.
The ceremony also included comments from United States 1st Lt. Adam Arata, who serves with Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 325th Airborne at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina. He spoke of the impact DeGlopper still has on soldiers French Honorary Consulate of Buffalo Pascal Soares spoke about how DeGlopper’s action will never be forgotten, and how DeGlopper is memorialized at the site of his death in Normandy.
Grand Island Scout Troop No. 630 was present providing water and greeting guests with a program.
Erie County Clerk Michael Kearns, whose office sponsors the county’s “Thank A Vet” program, was touched by the entire presentation.
“This was like a national event today,” he said afterward. “Charles DeGlopper was a Medal of Honor recipient and was so heroic. To me, this program should be shown in every single classroom in the United States of America. It is an opportunity to witness the brave patriotism we see every day from the men and women who serve our country. Today’s program recognized all veterans who served from Grand Island and, as the French representative said, ‘We will never forget.’ ”
Lt. Col. Terry McGuire, the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park’s board chairman, said DeGlopper’s heroism has inspired him since he was a reservist at the Army Reserve Center in Tonawanda: “I read his plaque over and over because it is such an amazing story of heroism and bravery. When I was at Fort Bragg in 2004 awaiting my deployment to Iraq, I would walk on DeGlopper Road and see all of the tributes to my hometown hero there. It gave me further inspiration to serve our country.
“What a great tribute this is to Pfc. Charles DeGlopper – and to have the entire community of Grand Island come together like this is impressive.”
Photos by K&D Action Photo and Aerial Imaging
Paul Marzello, president and CEO of the Naval & Military Park, added: “It is important for people in our generation to know there are heroes among us and they stand on the shoulders of these men who sacrificed everything for our freedom.”
Former Town of Tonawanda Supervisor Gen. Anthony Caruana (Ret.) read the biographies of three veterans. He said the ceremony brought back so many memories of the two years he was assigned the assistant casualty officer for Army headquarters, responsible for providing assistance for families who lost loved ones in service, and for notifications to families of KIAs and MIAs in 14 Midwest states.
“I know what each of those KIA families felt at the time they were notified,” he said. “To see the spirit of everyone coming together on Grand Island to recognize these brave veterans is impressive.”
Boy Scout Troop 630 leader Scott Swagler added: “For Scouts, this is important for them to realize this is an important part of the history of the United States of America. This is what made our country great, and it is important to be a part of that history.”
Drexelius stood with other members of the DeGlopper Post Expansion Committee during a reception afterward at the VFW, and summed it up best when he said, “It was truly awesome!”