When they can’t help but see the bold red, white and black flag with the swastika hanging on the wall in the farthest corner opposite the door, four out of 10 people who’ve previewed the newly organized military exhibit at the American Legion in Sag Harbor lower their voices and ask their guide, curator Paul Gerecke, “Gee, should that really be there?”
“Yes! Because this is history,” Mr. Gerecke, tells them. “We’re not advocating the ideology,” he explained on a recent tour. “It’s a war prize, signed by all the guys who captured it.”
Beginning with a ribbon cutting to be hosted by Mr. Gerecke right after the annual Sag Harbor Veterans Day Parade on Monday, November 11, the exhibition room will be open to the public free of charge on a limited basis.
“Our intent is it will be open on weekends from 12 noon to 2 p.m. and on Sundays from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.,” Mr. Gerecke said, “when folks will be waiting for their tables at the Dockside,” the restaurant that occupies the same building. “They can come in and wander around and maybe drop a dollar or two in the hat.”
The Nazi banner was captured in 1944 in eastern France by members of the 86th Armored Reconnaissance Regiment, “a hodgepodge of a unit,” Mr. Gerecke surmised, because it included men from all over the United States, according to their signatures and home towns, from St. Louis to Esmond, Rhode Island. “There are a bunch of New Yorkers on here but I haven’t found a direct Sag Harbor connection,” Mr. Gerecke said.
Like many of the 500 or so items in the post’s memorabilia collection — from newspaper clippings, photos, and medals to weapons, uniforms, helmets and even “blood chits,” the patches fliers stitched on their flight jackets in World War II with pleas written in multiple languages to civilians for help in case they were shot down — the provenance of the flag is unknown.
“I’m still researching it,” said Mr. Gerecke, who doesn’t know how the banner came to be in the possession of the American Legion Chelberg & Battle Post 388. “Some of this stuff we’ve had for almost 100 years,” ever since the post was founded in 1919. “Other things have come to us in bits and pieces over the years. All of it can’t be on display at once; we’ve got to hold things back to rotate in later. There’s a fine line between putting out enough to tell the story and not putting out too much.”
The collection used to sit in boxes in storage and for decades Legion members would talk about finding a way to do it justice.
“We’ve got all this great stuff and no one gets to see it,” they’d say, Mr. Gerecke recalled. Dolores Zebrowski, John Ward and Chick Schrier pushed to find some kind of solution and, when he became commander, Dave Pharaoh “kept the dream alive,” Mr. Gerecke said.
Finally, after Mr. Gerecke retired from the Coast Guard and became commander, the post in 2017 figured out the financing — large bequests from two members and income from the Dockside were crucial — and won permission to expand its 1953 building with a 1,100-square-foot addition, 650 square feet of which was designated for the exhibition room.
The project depended entirely on local talent, from the painters and electricians to master carpenter and builder Chuck Lattanzio and architect James Laspesa.
The facility should never be called a “museum” because the zoning code, Mr. Garecke noted, prohibits museums in the waterfront district. But the collection covers a lot of bases and certainly qualifies as museum-grade.
After the Nazi flag across the room hits one’s eye at the doorway, an open wardrobe space on the left reveals dozens of uniforms that date from the Spanish-American War to Vietnam, including the West Point dress uniform and tall, cylindrical “shako” cap of Legion member John O’Brien.
Stroll by display cases and see Civil War keppi hats, a bollo knife from the Spanish American War in the Philippines, and an enlisted sailor’s cap from the USS Gilmer, first commissioned in 1919 but recommissioned in 1939 for service in World War II.
There the gas mask and pistol of Dick Killoran, an Ambulance driver in World War I; Mary Bennett’s grandfather’s distinguished service cross certificate; and a coronet played at Camp Upton by George Battle, one of the World War I casualties from Sag Harbor after whom the post was named.
See the Bible that late Sag Harbor barber Marty Trunzo carried through World War II and the Army nurse’s uniform of Ann Santacroce, born Tedesco, who landed in Normady and served in two more campaigns through World War II; the leggings, fighting knife and dog tags of Pete Guido, who served with the Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa; a piece of wood salvaged from the deck of the burning USS Intrepid; Major General Ed Deyermond’s flak jacket, desert combat helmet and military bio; and a P38 model airplane made out of bullets and shell casings, “trench art” made by a friend that belonged to Joe Buttonow.
There’s the telegram to the parents of the late Sag Harbor Colonel Robert McDade, informing them he had been wounded in Korea. A veteran of World War II, he went on to serve in Vietnam, commanding troops in the Ia Drang Valley during the first major battle between the U.S. Army and the People’s Army of Vietnam.
A photo shows him receiving a medal from President Lyndon Johnson. His collection, donated by his family, includes three Silver Stars, five Legions of Merit, three Bronze Stars, three Purple Hearts, five Air Medals, two Army commendation medals, campaign medals from Worlds War II in the Pacific, Korea and Vietnam; the Air Assault Badge and a Combat Infantry Badge with two stars, the first for Korea and the second for Vietnam.
“Only 324 Army personnel in the history of the service had ever earned a CIB with two stars,” Mr. Gerecke will tell you.