Saturday, December 12, 2009

A Labor of Love: Community project turns into tribute to town veterans



Saturday, December 12, 2009

SUNDERLAND - "Sunderland's Veterans: A Book of Remembrance" is a historical document, a collection of letters, photos and stories about every town resident who ever served in the United States Armed Forces.

It is also a testament to the gratitude and respect Sunderland residents have for the service of their neighbors.

That was not its original intent. When members of the Sunderland Veterans Memorial Committee set about creating "A Book of Remembrance" two years ago, they sought to create something that would show the town's appreciation for those who had contributed their time, effort and money to the construction of the Veterans Memorial that had been completed in the summer of 2007.

But as community endeavors have a habit of doing, one thing led to another, and the rest, so to speak, is history.

"The book grew out of recognizing the people who donated to the memorial, and kind of evolved from there to a recognition of everyone from the donors to the veterans," said Dan Van Dalsen, a Veterans Memorial committee member.

The book contains a chapter that lists those who contributed to the monument, and another that details every significant moment in the monument's construction. But it is also much more.

The crux - and perhaps most impressive feature - of the book are the chapters dedicated to telling the stories of the town's veterans. The stories begin in the French and Indian War, before the United States had declared its independence, and continue through every major conflict up until 2007.

Today, the book is available for viewing at the Sunderland Library, the culmination of two years of work by Van Dalsen and the two other Sunderland Veterans Memorial Committee members, Janet Conley and Will Sillin.

The trio solicited stories from family members, collected letters written by the veterans and pored over town records for biographical information on each soldier. The group also worked with members of the Historical Society, who provided information on veterans from the earliest conflicts: the French and Indian War, the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.

Van Dalsen, a retired lieutenant colonel who served 38 years in the Air Force, said the stories help bring to light the sacrifices made by those who served. "The story behind the name really brings home the fact that there was a real person with a real life behind that name," Van Dalsen said in a recent interview at the Sunderland Library.

He said the letters especially can be quite moving. "Some of the histories you read just bring you to tears," VanDalsen said.

Sillin made a similar point.

"When you get the personal photos with the family snapshots and the stories, it strikes you. It's a revelation in a way: You can't thank these people enough," Sillin said. "When you get the personal story, that's when that thought really hits me."

Van Dalsen noted that much generosity has gone into the production of the book. When the group took the idea to Bridgeport National Bindery, the company immediately agreed to bind the book for free. Today it is in a leather binder, giving it the look of an encyclopedia.

Van Dalsen said they chose a binder format so that future pages, about new veterans, can be added as needed. "It's going to become bigger, unfortunately," Van Dalsen said.

A condensed hard-copy version of the book will be available for purchase in the next couple of months, Van Dalsen said. Profits made are headed to maintenance costs of the Veterans Memorial, he said.

On a recent morning, Van Dalsen and Sillin flipped through the book, expressing awe at the actions described within it.

As an example of the type of heroics found in the book, they pointed to the story of Michael Magelinski, a Korean War veteran, who earned the Distinguished Service Cross after he carried his wounded patrol leader through waist-high snow to safety.

The Book of Remembrance also chronicles tragic stories as well, they noted. Richard Graves, a prodigy with machinery who first flew a plane at the age of 16, was the last Sunderland resident killed in action after his plane was shot down over Vietnam. His younger brother, David Graves, was sworn into the U.S. Navy's Aviation Program one month later.

Paul Korpita, a Sunderland native and longtime resident, submitted information to the book about his two brothers, Michael and Edward Korpita, both of whom fought in World War II. Michael was awarded a Purple Heart, the American Defense Medal and the Pacific Theater Service Medal, but died after his ship, the USS Dehaven, was sunk in an aerial attack, according to the book.

Edward Korpita also was aboard a ship that was sunk in battle, and yet he survived. Edward's ship, the USS Cooper, had been engaged in a brief firefight with the Japanese destroyer, the Kuwa. The Cooper sank the Kuwa in a matter of minutes, but not before the Japanese vessel got off one last torpedo, which sunk the Cooper. Edward found refuge by clinging to a lifeboat, which he shared with fellow survivors from both the American and Japanese ships. The boat washed up in the Philippines, where Edward was rescued by the Filipino resistance, the book said.

In a phone interview, Paul Korpita said he was glad that both of his brothers would be remembered in the book. "It's a great thing," Korpita said. "Both of them were on losing ships, but Eddie washed up on shore and was rescued by the Filipinos, who took him up into the mountains. He told quite a story, and I thought that warranted getting into that book," Korpita said.

Conley said it was an honor to work on the book. "It is something that started to grow as a seed and has continued to blossom," Conley said. "The key I think to this is that the three of us worked on this with a great deal of respect and gratitude for those on the wall."

Contact the selectmen's office at 665-1441 for information about submissions and purchasing the book.

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