Any story about the 100thanniversary of Sag Harbor’s Chelberg & Battle Post 388 of the American Legion would have to be packed with names if the goal is to give credit where credit is due for the organization’s longevity, which will be celebrated by the membership at a dinner at the Legion Hall on Tuesday, September 17.
So many local men and women made the post a landmark in their lives — and an integral part of the Sag Harbors community — that there’s just one way to do them all justice: publish a thick commemorative journal chock full of photos and text marking the post’s first century.
The Legion has done just that.
More than a year in the planning and preparation, the 182-page, spiral-bound book was put together by Legion members Robert Doty, who edited it, and Deborah Guerin, who handled the Herculean task of assembling its hundreds of historic photos; and David Nimz, a friend of the Legion with career writing experience whom Mr. Doty asked to handle the more-than-30-page historical narrative of that appears in the book.
The post printed 400 copies and they are available at $20 each by calling the Legion at 631-725-9759 and leaving a message, if necessary.
“We wanted to do something special that would stand the test of time and be a memorial not only to the veterans in Sag Harbor but also for the families of those veterans,” explained Mr. Doty.
“Memories can be fleeting,” wrote Paul Garecke, the post commander at the time the journal project was launched, in his introduction to the book, “and as more and more of our veterans are called home by the Almighty, it is my sincere hope that this journal will help keep their memories alive.”
Founded with 15 members and borrowed meeting places in 1919 by Dr. J. H. McCort, a World War I Marine Corps veteran, the Legion was named initially for Corporal James Frederick Chelberg, a Sag Harbor soldier killed in action in France during World War I, according to the journal. In 1920, the post added the name of another Sag Harbor man killed in action, Private George Francis Battle.
In 1923, the post found its first permanent home in a school-building annex behind the Municipal Building on Main Street, Mr. Nimz wrote in his journal narrative. It was renovated in 1932, the same year the post began to give its annual prize to an outstanding student of American history at Pierson High School
The Legion’s Auxiliary was chartered during World War II, when 446 men and women from the Sag Harbor area saw action in Europe, Asian and Arica, 18 of them losing their lives, Mr. Nimz wrote. As for the Auxiliary, “Sag Harbor women became airplane spotters and assisted the local fire department,” Mr. Nimz wrote. “They helped the Observation Posts, sold chance books for War Bonds, and made window displays for the National Defense Fund, donated to injured veterans, and took over the distribution of poppies. The Auxiliary has supported the activities of the [post] since the branch was formed, and it continues to this day,” wrote Mr. Nimz.
In late 1945, the post set as an official goal the building of a “community house” to serve as headquarters for returning veterans of the war. With an influx of new members, the post held block parties, dances, bingo games, card parties and an automobile raffle to raise money.
“After a failed effort to obtain the Hannibal French House,” Mr. Nimz wrote, the Post paid $2,000 to buy a portion of the Socony Mobil Oil Company’s property on Bay Street. With a loan from the Sag Harbor Savings Bank and revenue from all those fundraisers, the post put up and opened its current headquarters in 1954, with stone mason and craftsman Charles Labrozzi providing his services at cost.
There was “nothing like it at the time,” David Pharaoh, the current commander, said.
Today the Legion is still far more than a meeting place for veterans. Its continuing financial support for local students and civic organizations has reached nearly $100,000 since 2016, according to Mr. Doty.
“It’s the first and only Community House in Sag Harbor,” Mr. Nimz wrote in the journal, “sponsoring many activities — birthday parties, weddings, outdoor band concerts, luncheons, barbecues, dinner dances, Cub Scout awards, and baseball, basketball, and soccer sign-ups. It provides meeting rooms for senior citizens, medical programs, our … Memorial Day and Veterans Day parades. In addition, we mentor young people, and we’re able to provide college scholarship activities.”
Mr. Nimz went on to summarize the histories of every military conflict since World War I, and the journal commemorates with photos the Sag Harbor men killed in action, from Army Corporal Chelberg and Private Battle, to the 16 who died in World War II, to the most recent war dead: Lance Corporal Jordan C. Haerter; Specialist Orlando Antonio Perez, both killed in Iraq, and First Lieutenant Joseph J. Theinert, who died in Afghanistan.
But the journal also commemorates everybody who served. “At the Legion, it’s not about one individual. It’s about all the individuals who have served and sometimes that gets kind of lost,” commented Mr. Pharaoh.
The journal was supported by the relatives of veterans who paid $25 per quarter page to publish photos of their loved one when he or she — yes, there were many women, many of whom were nurses — was in the service; and by ads from local businesses and officials.
The list of businesses and organizations that advertised is one indication of the post’s deep roots and support in and around Sag Harbor. They include Cromer’s Market, the Knights of Columbus, Sag Harbor Beverages, the John Jermain Memorial Library, the St. Andrew Church community, Bay Street Theater, the Schmitz family’s Sag Harbor Liquor Store, Post 9082, Sotheby’s, the Express, Sag Harbor Variety Store, Long Wharf Upholstery & Fabrics, Lilee Fell Flowers, The Corner Bar, Apple Bank, Russell H. Nill roofing and siding, the Noyac Civic Council and Il Capuccino Ristorante.
Beginning not long after the draft came to an end in 1973, the word for years has been that Legion posts across the country have struggled with declining enrollments. At its peak in the first few decades after World War II, Chelberg & Battle Post had a membership of more than 400 and the Legion was the social center of the community for them.
Membership currently stands at more than 130. “We get 40 guys at every meeting,” said Mr. Pharoah, “but the working members are down to about seven guys when we need a hand doing something.”
What Mr. Pharaoh called social memberships have actually risen in recent years as former second homeowners who are veterans, especially from the Noyac area, joined the post.
“Compared to everybody else” the post is doing well, he said. But he added, “Let me tell you right now, we had our problems 30 years ago and we acted on them.”
A key decision was to stop selling $2 beers at the bar, as Mr. Pharoah put it, and lease space to the Dockside restaurant in 1996. “That right there was big but, of course, you had pushback from members on that because you can’t come get $2 beers any more … All of a sudden the social club was over but we were hemorrhaging money. It had to be done,” he said.
Also important to the post’s survival were generous bequests from Frank Onisko, a past commander who almost single-handedly kept the post together during his time, and Ralph Springer, a friend of the Legion, and the long-time leader of the Sag Harbor Community Band, which plays outside the Legion Hall on summer Tuesday evenings.
Thanks to those bequests and revenue from the popular restaurant, the post doesn’t spend time fund-raising. “We don’t have to because of the restaurant now,” said Mr. Pharaoh, but still, more than ever, the post “gives back to the community.”