Behind every American jet and aircraft racing across the East Asian skies during the Korean War, there was an aircraft mechanic like Herb Barret.
While he may not have been stationed in Korea himself, he still served his country from Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina. And now, at 87, the Marine Corps veteran is continuing the mission of ensuring those who fought and died for the United States are remembered at Van Cortlandt Park’s Memorial Grove.
Held the first Sunday in November, this year’s remembrance takes place Nov. 4 at noon. Countless veterans and local politicians are joined by Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts for a day filled with performances laced with American traditions like the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The service not only honors the 39 veterans memorialized at the grove, but the memories of all veterans carried in the hearts of those attending and forgotten.
The grove, located on Broadway and West 246th Street, was first installed in 1949. Over the years, some of the 39 markers were vandalized or stolen. However, in 2012, the grove was restored with the help of Barret and his right-hand man, Donald Tannen. For years the two fought to restore the Memorial Grove, and once it was restored in 2007, they began to host an annual Veterans Day service.
Then Councilman Oliver Koppell allocated funds for the installation of a protective pipe rail fence and resetting the plaques on their bases.
“Herb and Don started this veteran event with their campaign, and each year it gets a little bigger,” said Margot Perron, president of the Van Cortlandt Park Conservancy, in a statement.
Up to 100 people show up to the event, depending on the weather. It was a special time to remember all who served, and something Tannen enjoyed doing, up until he died in 2014.
“He was the soft-spoken one, and he and I would sit and put ideas together on what to do (the) next year,” Barret said. “We would pester the community board and the different politicians in our neighborhood and try to get them to acknowledge what was there and invite them to learn about what is there. And every year most of them show up.”
Barret not only worked on planes during his military service, but he flew around in them too.
“I had plenty of flight time, and they basically train you how to get out of the plane just in case something happens while you’re flying,” he said.
Sometimes when he wasn’t working he used to zip all the way down to Florida.
For Barret, mechanical work was always his gift. Before he had even attended auto school, he was the neighborhood’s mechanic — that is until 1951 when, at the age of 20, he was drafted.
Aircraft engines were “almost like a car engine, but much larger,” Barret said. After two years of service, he returned and worked in his family’s supermarket before completing an automotive school.
It was Barret’s father, a Russian immigrant, who instilled his love of country, wearing the American flag any chance he got.
“It’s important to bring people together and honor their service,” Perron said. “A living grove of trees makes a great place to celebrate that service.”
This year a new plaque was installed that celebrates all who fought in the Vietnam War. That was thanks to the efforts of Stephen Budihas, who pushed for the marker to honor the memory of Roger C. Brathwaite, a local resident who served in the U.S. Army, killed in battle in the A Shau Valley in 1969.
“I’ve always felt that the Bronx veterans who served and sacrificed during that war have never been acknowledged,” Budihas told The Riverdale Press last May. “Even when the public started acknowledging us with the wall down in Washington in the ‘80s, and all the smaller memorials around the country, we’re still a footnote.”
More than 600,000 soldiers died in service of this country between World War I and the Vietnam War. It’s important to Barret those sacrifices are never forgotten — not just for those who gave their lives, but for those who served and returned home, too.
“I enjoyed being in the Marine Corps,” Barret said. “It gives you a certain extra touch of love for your country, and it’s a very fine organization. So being a member of it is an honor.”