Memorial honors fallen Taft HS graduates
by BRIAN NADIG
A new veterans memorial at Taft High School honors graduates who have died while serving in the military, reminding today’s students of the heroes who once walked the same hallways.
"Second Lieutenant Thomas Flynn from Edison Park was based in Texas when his plane started to fall. It was falling toward a group of 75 schoolchildren, and to save their lives, he swerved his P-39 away and died in the crash," Taft Alumni Association president and local historian Anne Lunde said.
News of Flynn’s death was reported in the school newspaper at the time, the Taft Tribune.
The newspaper would run letters from Taft graduates who served during World War II.
"The school registered the names from World War II on an honor roll, adding gold stars when word came back of lives lost," Lunde said.
In the same newspaper issue, the death of student and Aviation Cadet Thomas Schumacher was reported. The school issued Schumacher a diploma in absentia after he left in 1943 to go fight for his country, according to Lunde.
Norman Paulish, a high school friend of Flynn and Schumacher, wrote the following: "There is not much a fella can do but get a lump in his throat and work twice as hard. They were really two great fellas, and all I can say is that I’m mighty proud that I knew them."
Lunde said that Taft coach Joe Kupcinet fought in the war and was surprised to meet two Taft graduates on an island in the Pacific Ocean. One of them was Harry Athamar, who was later killed during the war.
Former Taft student Nels Swanson died in 1965 during an air assault mission.
Swanson’s company was pinned down by machine gun and mortar fire, and his actions earned him a posthumous Silver Star. Swanson was honored for rising to his feet and advancing against the enemy with courage and determination, as his company overcame the enemy. The private first class died of his wounds the next day, according to Lunde.
Another former student, Marty Huska, was killed in 1970, and his friends back home later "remembered him as an awesome baseball player at Oriole Park, the team shortstop, with a big, wide grin," Lunde said.
Research showed that 33 men from Taft were killed in WWII and 10 in the Vietnam War, although the list may not be complete, Lunde said. No records were found indicating that Taft students died in other wars, including the Korean and Gulf wars, she said.
Taft principal Mark Grishaber asks that those with additional information on graduates who were killed to contact the school, as names will be added to the memorial.
The top of the brick memorial features a Taft eagle looking down on the names of those who were killed. "I wanted it, the eagle, sadly overlooking the names of those who have passed," Grishaber said.
The memorial, whose brass eagle was designed by artist Jesus Acuna, was dedicated during a May 28 ceremony following the annual Norwood Park Memorial Day parade. The cost of the memorial was about $25,000, with cadets from the school’s U.S. Naval Junior ROTC Program raising about $10,000 for the project and the alumni association donating $3,000. "We’re still getting donations," Grishaber said.
A plaque on the memorial features similar but not exact wording of a phrase displayed at the entrance of the Alamo in Texas: "Be silent, friend. Here are the heroes that died to blaze a trail for other men."
Plans call for a time capsule to be placed in the memorial and to be opened in 2139 on the 200th anniversary of the high school.