Herb Barret may have served in what’s known as “the forgotten war” — the Korean War — but he wants to make sure his brothers and sisters in arms are never forgotten.
And so every year since 2007, Barret hosts a Veterans Day ceremony in Van Cortlandt Park’s Memorial Grove — a quiet, fenced section of the park designed to honor those who lost their lives fighting in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War.
The annual Veterans Day ceremony enters its 14th year, set for Sunday, Nov. 8 at noon.
Barret’s service came through the U.S. Marines Corps, where he worked as an airplane engine mechanic — just as the armed forces were beginning to fully adopt jets. The sergeant on the line assigned Barret to inspect the planes, despite his lack of experience with jets.
“I had to become familiar, and I guess having the mechanical aptitude, you get familiar really quickly,” he said. “So from being trained on regular piston engines, I ended up being an aircraft mechanic.”
Barret stumbled upon Memorial Grove decades after the war, during an opportunistic bike ride through Van Cortlandt Park in 2006. He didn’t know quite what the grove was, but something made him stop to take a closer look.
But Barret didn’t exactly find the grove in a state of honor. It was not well-maintained, and some of the plaques honoring the soldiers who were killed in action were covered in dirt. He found one plaque after another representing soldiers that were seemingly forgotten years after their service.
“I actually came back and started digging by the foot of the trees that didn’t have monuments,” Barret said. “I happened to find some monuments that had no plaques on them. And then I found one monument that was completely buried, and it happened to be a World War I monument.”
Barret continued his day, but the grove’s condition weighed heavy on his mind. He then met World War II veteran Donald Tannen at The Riverdale Y, and the two quickly bonded over their military service. Barret shared with Tannen his tale of the grove at Van Cortlandt, and it was there the two committed to restoring it and finding a way to honor both the soldiers enshrined there and the remaining veterans in their community.
They quickly got to work, recruiting a number of area organizations to restore the grove, including the city’s parks department and local elected officials, calling on them to honor the grove’s legacy.
“We did speeches in front of the main community board meeting … and knocking out different politicians that worked in the neighborhood,” Barret said. “Little by little, we got going. And like I told the community board in one of my first speeches, I said, ‘Get accustomed to me, because I’m going to be a pain in your side.’”
One of the ways the men honored their brothers and sisters in arms was by establishing this yearly ceremony. Barret reaches out to many prominent community members and elected officials each year to invite them — regardless of their previous attendance record.
Barret also invites the color guards for the respective ROTC chapters in the borough — one for each major branch of the military. Manhattan College’s color guard represents the U.S. Air Force, Fordham University represents the U.S. Army, and SUNY Maritime College represents the U.S. Navy and Marines.
Some of them also play a pivotal role in preparing the grove for the ceremony. Barret is 89 and can no longer clean the grove himself. But last week, Manhattan College students took care of it so it could be ready in time for the Veterans Day ceremony.
The ceremony might look a bit different this year, although Barret was not exactly sure how. He expected there would be social distancing, and certain attendants would wear masks.
And, of course, there will be someone missing, as he’s been for several years. Tannen died in 2014, and now Barret’s effort to make the ceremony a reality each year is a solo one.
But the ceremony isn’t the only thing Barret is willing to fight for. From his initial discovery of the grove in 2006, he and Tannen fought for its restoration. And they finally got it in 2012. The city council stepped up to make it happen, replacing memorial plaques, adding new plants, and even constructing a boundary fence.
This was all well and good in 2012. But eight years down the line, Barret thinks the grove is beginning to return to its previous state. And he thinks there’s more people could do to pay the respect veterans deserve.
“I started fighting again with the administration of the park to get some additional signage, and they kind of think a sign on the corner is sufficient,” Barret said. “Memorial Grove … is something like 450 feet long, and there’s not one sign until you reach the 246th Street bus stop.”
The year has been particularly trying given the combined tolls of the coronavirus pandemic and a tumultuous presidential election on the horizon. But regardless, Barret thinks honoring veterans — living and deceased — is something that should be done irrespective of a fraught political and social climate.
“What’s important is that these veterans need to be honored,” Barret said. “Keep the Memorial Grove alive, and let people know what’s there and why it’s there.”