Marty Knab, Commander of the Chelberg & Battle American Legion Legion Post 388, oversees a ceremony wherein a bench was dedicated to Frank and Anne Santacroce by Michael and Colleen Santacroce during the 60th Anniversary Celebration of the Sag Harbor Chelberg and Battle American Legion Post 388 on Monday, September 22. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Stephen J. Kotz
Robert Browngardt, a past commander of the Chelberg-Battle Post #388, didn’t pause when asked Monday for his favorite memory of the Sag Harbor American Legion.
“The parade after World War II,” he answered. “It went all the way up to the park to the World War I monument and then came all the way back down.”
He was only six at the time, but he remembered that it meant “Everybody’s coming home.” Except for his brother, Lieutenant Arthur Browngardt, whose B-25 bomber was lost over the Philippines in 1943. Lt. Browngardt, who looks a little like James Dean in a photo on the wall in the post’s meeting room, showing him standing in front of his plane, “The Sag Harbor Express,” was just 21 when he died.
Although stories like these could be heard at nearly every table in the packed ballroom, Monday night’s mood was one of pride and happiness as legionnaires and their guests gathered to celebrate the 60th birthday of their legion hall, which was dedicated on September 22, 1954.
The hall, which was paid for in large part by a buy-a-brick program, raffles—including one for a new car at only 25 cents a chance—and bingo games, quickly became Sag Harbor’s community center, said past commander David Pharaoh, an army veteran.
“The legion today stands as a testament to the commitment from the veterans of Sag Harbor to their country and especially the Village of Sag Harbor,” he said. “Built by the people for the people.”
Charlie Labrozzi, a local mason, built the building for $36,000—pretty much at cost, Mr. Pharaoh said. “Charlie was not a vet,” he said. “It was his way of saying thank you to the many veterans of Sag Harbor.”
An organization that was founded after World War I and named after James Chelberg and George Battle, two Sag Harbor soldiers who lost their lives in the “war to end all wars,” the legion thrived until the early 1980s when membership declined and the organization found itself on thin ice financially.
The commander at that time, Frank Onisko, poured much of his own money into keeping the post afloat. “If the ‘80s was the ‘Me Decade,” somebody, thank God, forgot to tell Frank,” Mr. Pharaoh said.
The groundwork for the legion’s latest prosperity,” Mr. Pharaoh said, came when Charles “Chick” Schreier became commander in 1998.
Both Ralph Ficorelli, an army veteran who repaired everything from trucks to tanks while stationed in Alaska, and Navy veteran Jerry Guerin, a crew member on carrier-based TBD Avenger bombers during the Korean War, credited Mr. Schreier for restoring post’s morale and bank balance.
That was achieved, in part, said another former commander, Bruce Winchell, by leasing a portion of the building to the Dockside restaurant.
“Other posts are closing, but we’re doing well,” he said.
The Ladies Auxiliary was not forgotten either, as former commander Deborah Guerin, who was helping set up the hall with other volunteers that afternoon, read a long list of the group’s contributions, from poppy and raffle sales to fundraisers for the Red Cross and USO.
Both Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst and state Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. presented the post with proclamations.
There was an old saying in Sag Harbor: “You don’t see the locals ’til after Labor Day,” said Mr. Thiele. “We’re out in force…. This is what makes Sag Harbor a special place. We’re one big family.”
Another past commander, John Reidy, recounted to a reporter how his ship, the destroyer U.S.S. Brownson, was sunk in a matter of minutes by a Japanese dive bomber on December 26, 1943, in the Pacific. “It was Christmas Day at home, but we were on the other side of the International Date Line,” he said. Mr. Reidy suffered internal injuries when depth charges on the ship exploded as it sank while he and other sailors swam away. He was laughing about it on Monday night, as though it was some youthful prank. But then he stopped for a second to admit, “I was terrified…”