Allan Joel and Thomas Wells Johnson, Deerfield Class of 1937, World War II pilots and brothers whose names are etched in the granite base around the flagpole near the Memorial Building, were killed five days apart in an aerial raid over Germany.
“That means the mother received one notification letter, and five days later she received another letter,” said John Cycz, co-chairman of the Deerfield Veterans Street Sign Committee. “You just have to imagine what it was like to be that parent.”
The Veterans Street Sign Committee will honor the brothers this Monday at 9 a.m. at the intersection of Routes 5 and 10 and the north end of Old Main Street. They will read biographies of the soldiers and unveil two blue, 36 by 9 inch signs. The signs will rest on top of a street sign to memorialize the brothers.
“We wanted to find another way to recognize them besides putting their names on a monument,” Chairman Doug Tierney said. “We came across something in the eastern part of the state, which was to develop signs and put them on top of street signs in proximity to where the men lived.”
The Johnson brothers are among the 23 Deerfield soldiers who lost their lives in war. Seven of them graduated from the Academy. With the help of private donations, a project to have all soldiers memorialized over street signs is underway.
“Usually a family member will say a few words and pull off the veil [covering the sign] at the end of the ceremony,” Mr. Tierney said. “We have not been able to reach any Johnson family. We see the Academy as the Johnson family.”
The Committee hopes to have a senior, junior, sophomore and freshman at the unveiling, as many members of the community as possible.
“We think it’s important that DA participates since it has a rich, strong history, strong history about character, values and service,” Mr. Tierney said. “We think it’s equally important that students of the 21st century get to understand 19th and 20th century graduates who helped shape this country.”
The heart and soul of the project, Mr. Tierney said, is Researcher Betty Hollingsworth, who spent 18 hours a day researching birth dates, death dates and events leading to their death for the biographies. Ms. Hollingsworth had to validate the data in three different ways. She said the hardest part was the research, since technology and immediate access to information didn’t exist in the Spanish American War, WWI, and WWII.
“Except now I have more information on our Spanish American War than I do on anyone else,” she said.
Ms. Hollingsworth used town reports, military sources, gravestones newspaper articles, anyone with personal information about the fallen soldiers. An experience that motivates her, she said, comes from when she was 12 years old.
“I had twin brothers, and they were both in service in Europe. I was a young girl and I was home all alone. In those days, when a person was killed in action, they sent a service person to the door and delivered the message in person. I saw this uniformed service man walk up to the door. I screamed ‘I will not accept!’ because I thought he had a telegram telling me my brother was killed in action. But as a young girl, that uniform coming to your doorstep meant that you lost a person. And I was affected by it,” she said.
“It is emotional, and it is personal,” Mr. Tierney said of the project. “We’re doing the right thing for the right reason for the right people. We think other communities might want to hear about this and perhaps this can serve as an impetus. Our effort is about service to country, not about campaign or politics. We’re here to honor and service the country.”
Ms. Hollingsworth added, “You feel a strong association with the veterans. Working with them, every day you get a chance to see lives interrupted, departures and homecomings. Some of them are more joyful than others, but that’s the nature of the service.”