U.S. Air Force Lieutenant Fred Beyer was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal for his service flying a B-24 Liberator with the 376th Bomb Group in Italy from 1944 to 1945. His time flying during World War II often would require taking on dangerous missions, including one where his plane was severely damaged from heavy gunfire. Thanks to Lt. Beyer’s skills, he landed the plane to fly another day.It was certainly a long way from Pierson Middle/High School in Sag Harbor, from which he graduated before the war.
For years, the American Legion Post 388 on Bay Street has been on a mission to collect and preserve items like Lt. Beyer’s medals and other pieces of military memorabilia connected to residents of Sag Harbor who served their country in wars dating back to the Civil War. Soon, they’ll dust off those pieces of history and put them on display.
The Legion is planning to build a 1,100-square-foot expansion to the eastern section of the post headquarters. The expansion will serve as an exhibition hall for memorabilia from major American wars used by Sag Harbor veterans and residents.
According to Paul Gerecke, the Legion’s financial officer, the early schematics for the expansion have been approved by the village’s Planning Board and Harbor Committee. All that’s left is for more detailed plans to be drawn up by architect James Laspesa before construction can begin in the fall.
Mr. Gerecke went on to say that the hall will be organized chronologically, with items from the Civil War to modern day showcased in a loop around the hall, with two or three waist-high cabinets featuring items that would be changed out on occasion.
For now, Mr. Gerecke and other Legion members are sifting through the inventory of military memorabilia and playing detective, trying to figure out the story behind each piece of history.
“A lot of this stuff has just been here and packed away in boxes for years, and as we go through the process of cataloging, doing inventory, conserving, and preparing this stuff to go on display, one of the biggest challenges is, ‘Gee, I don’t know where it came from—we’ve just always had it,’” Mr. Gerecke said. “I can’t attribute to a loan or a gift until I know where it came from. So, slowly but surely, we’re ferreting out the sources of as much of this as we can.”
Mr. Gerecke said there is a wide variety of items used by all branches of the military in major American wars. While many of the items the Legion plans to display are currently preserved in storage until the exhibition opens, he offered a brief glimpse of what will be in the exhibition hall. Those who visit the hall will have a chance to see the history of wars America was involved in, and the role Sag Harbor residents played in that history.
A lineup of hats and helmets—which Mr. Gerecke had set up in chronological order—gives a good illustration of the scope of history that will be on display.
It starts with a faded blue Kepi, the typical hat used by Union Army soldiers in the Civil War. While the one on display didn’t have specific decorations on it, Mr. Gerecke explained that the Kepi would have either crossed rifles, crossed swords or crossed cannons that identified what branch the soldier served in, such as infantry, or artillery.
Next to the Kepi was a brown hat that one might mistake for a park ranger’s, but it’s actually known as a Montana Peak campaign hat, used by American army forces in the Spanish American War. This hat used colored cords wrapped around the hat to identify a soldier’s position: light blue for infantry or yellow for cavalry, for example. The particular hat’s cord on display was maroon, to identify the medical corps—it belonged to Mr. Gerecke’s great uncle, who also was an ambulance driver and mechanic during World War I.
For that war, Mr. Gerecke showed that the American military used what was essentially a copy of what the British troops were wearing: the tin hat, a saucer-like helmet with a wide brim on its end to, as he explained, protect the soldier from shrapnel and debris raining down on them in the trenches.
By the time World War II came around, the helmet was upgraded from tin to the steel pot helmet which, thanks to its steep depth, protected the head from dangers from the side. On top of that, it had a removable liner, allowing soldiers to use the steel base to cook or dig.
This design stayed the same for the helmet used in the Vietnam War, aside from the addition of a modified chin strap and the use of an early form of fiberglass in the helmet instead of steel. By the late 1980s, the helmet material was changed again, to Kevlar.
Of course, those helmets were helpful in protecting soldiers from the weapons of war, many of which will also be on display at the Legion. Those weapons include a Model P-17 Enfield rifle, used by American troops in World War I, and a more effective weapon, a 1918 German Maxim shoulder-fired machine gun, a behemoth that was brought home from World War I by members of the Legion post. Mr. Gerecke said that it was one of two Maxims that was displayed in the front of the post building before someone stole the second gun some time ago. The remaining gun was removed and brought inside for safety.
“Apparently, they wanted it more than we did,” Mr. Gerecke said.
Other items include two 75-millimeter artillery shell casings, which were used for more than just battles.
“What soldiers would do to pass the time in between battles is, they would take those empty brass casings, and they would literally hammer decorations into them, or crush them gently to make what we call ‘trench art,’” he said. “They would make it out of empty shell casings, spent bullets, all sorts of stuff. They became souvenirs.”
Along with these artifacts, Mr. Gerecke said that the Legion has about 700 items in storage, with plans to have at least two-thirds of them on display in the exhibition hall. While some of the items are duplicates of the original item, others will require constant care and attention as they are put on display.
“Everything is designed or is intended to tie into Sag Harbor and our own village’s contribution to the nation’s military history and our national security,” Mr. Gerecke said.
One of the more prominent and localized pieces of memorabilia would be the flag of Camp Aldrich, which was a National/State Guard camp in North Haven during World War I. Some soldiers at the camp would go overseas to fight, while others would stay home in case there was ever an invasion on the homefront. The flag has been preserved and cared for ever since World War I ended.
“We’ve had it since before I was born,” Mr. Gerecke said. “I’d love to clean it, but I’m not going to try. I figure, at this point, the dirt is probably historic too.”