Local veterans, volunteers remember fallen heroes by placing flags at Highwood Cemetery

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Photo by Justin Criado

Upwards of 50 volunteers placed American flags at the grave sites of military veterans in Brightwood’s Highwood Cemetery Friday morning. Flags have been placed on veterans’ graves the Friday before Memorial Day for the past 67 years, according to volunteer coordinator Joe Brown.

By Justin Criado

Grave.

The inevitable final resting place of us all.

Marked by tombstones and flowers, most grave sites are only recognized in passing, not one given more attention than the others, typically.

But a group of 50 volunteers spent Friday morning combing over each grave and plot marker in Brightwood’s Highwood Cemetery, carefully surveying each one and placing an American flag at every military grave they discovered, just as it has been done for the last 67 years during Memorial Day weekend.

“To be truthful with you, this is very close to my heart. I’m a patriot,” volunteer coordinator Joe Brown said.  “I think that we need to show more respect to our fallen heroes of all the past wars that fought so diligently and gave the ultimate sacrifice so we can live in the free country that we live in right now.”

Brown, a Brightwood resident, is a member of the American Legion Observatory Post 81 and has been a part of the flag placement process for many years, along with Post 681 of Northside.

While Brown admits volunteers have been hard to gather in the past, this year students and instructors from CCAC-Allegheny, Brightwood’s Presley Ridge, The Academy Schools, Allegheny Intermediate Unit in McKees Rocks and the Perry JROTC all participated, each focusing on different sections of the cemetery.

“This is absolutely awesome,” Brown said of the volunteers’ efforts. “All I can say is each of these younger students come out here and they learn about how important it is to show respect to our fallen heroes that make our country what it is today.

“…I think the interest have grown over the years. It’s grown towards more participation to showing that respect.”

The Perry JROTC was on hand for the first time last year, and got to the cemetery early this year to clean the grave markers of any clippings to make them easier to identify.

“This is a tradition that every Friday before Memorial Day we come out and post the flags,” ROTC instructor Maj. Christopher Augustine said. “They’re giving back to the community and sacrificing their own time to do it, and that’s what JROTC is all about.”

There are two areas of the cemetery that are specifically dedicated to military veterans with each plot featuring a military marker showing official title, service dates and specific war, while others are spread throughout, only identified by smaller military flag holder markers.

Soldiers from every major war in American history dating back to the Civil War have found their final resting place in Highwood Cemetery, and Brown estimated that upwards of 2,000 flags are placed each year.

“A lot of these guys knew each other,” Brown said of the fallen veterans. “They fought in the same war together, may have even been in the same (military) company together.”

The graves also are indicative to the number of Northsiders that have served the country over the years, and Brown paused at one grave site in particular to fix the flag properly.

The grave, off to the left side of the two military quarters, shaded by a large, oak tree was the gravesite of one Charles E. Kelly.

At first glance, it seems just like the others. The tombstone is mostly square in shape other than the slight curve at the top, and as gray in color as any other tombstone there has ever been, but only after taking the time to actually read the inscription below the name plate is the significance of Kelly’s grave understood.

“Received the Medal of Honor for his participation in the 36th Texas Infantry’s landing at Salerno, Italy,” the stone reads.

On the back, “Charles E. “Commando” Kelly” is etched below the insignia for the Medal of Valor.

“Commando Kelly,” or “The One Man Army” as he was also known as, was the first enlisted man to be decorated with the Medal of Honor for action on the European continent as technical sergeant of the 3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division during World War II.

Kelly voluntarily joined another U.S. battalion near Altavilla, Italy in September 1943 before scouting enemy territory and helping destroy several machine gun nests. April 25, 1944, the morning after he returned to his residence at 532 Shawano Street in present-day Historic Deutschtown, was deemed “Commando Kelly Day” in Pittsburgh.

“Commander Kelly was one of the most decorated heroes of the Northside. He’s got just about every medal you can think of, including the Congressional Medal of Honor,” Pete Galinowski said. “When I was a kid I remember reading comic books about him. At that time I didn’t relate that he was a Northsider.”

A Brighton Heights resident, Galinowski is a Vietnam veteran himself and is currently the commander of Post 681, and while walking among the grave yard Friday morning, he explained that certain names stand out to him more than others.

“It means a lot that my comrades and guys are still remembered,” Galinowski said.  “I think if they were able to tell us something they’d be glad that people still remember them and are taking care of them.”

The annual 27th Ward Memorial Day Program will take place Monday, May 25 at 10:00 a.m. in Brighton Heights’ Legion Park, while the flags will remain on the grave sites until just after the Fourth of July when they’ll be taken and disposed of properly.

DSC_9856Photo by Justin Criado

Volunteer coordinator Joe Brown took a moment to fix the flag placed at Charles E. Kelly’s grave site in Brightwood’s Highwood Cemetery Friday morning.

A Northside native, “Commando Kelly” was the first enlisted man to be decorated with the Medal of Honor for action on the European continent as technical sergeant of the 3rd Battalion, 143rd Infantry Regiment, 36th Infantry Division during World War II.

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