They’re gone now, the men and women who answered the call to serve their country during the First and Second World Wars. All that remains are family memories and names on a bronze plaque almost no one notices on Main Street. But stop for a moment this Veterans Day and you will see a window into another time.
According to the U.S. Census, in 1940 the population of Brookhaven Town was 32,117; the population of Center Moriches was 1,469. Of these, 294 residents—roughly 20 percent of the community—served in the war. The intimate connections in a village where everyone knew everyone meant that no one was spared the impact war had on our country.
The Moriches community had already endured its share of losses during Word War I. Howell Gassert, a Marine Corps Reservist, died in May 1918. Ernest Carter, a United States Coast Guard Service “surfman” stationed at Life Saving Station 67, 4 miles Southwest of Montauk Point, drowned at the station on July 30.
To be a Coast Guard surfman was to undertake perilous work. Always a shadow enemy in wartime—dysentery during the Civil War, malaria in the Spanish-American effort—the outbreak of World War I coincided with the 1918 influenza pandemic. On Oct. 2, 1918, Henry Squires Brown died at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital, one of 21 Navy personnel who died that day of influenza, or a related respiratory infection, in that single Naval facility. Of 44 reporting U.S. Navy hospitals, bases, ships, training facilities, and troop transport vessels, a total of 112 men died on Oct. 2, 1918, all but one of influenza, bronchial pneumonia, or other respiratory disease.
According to the World War I Honor Roll for Suffolk County, 129 Army servicemen, 22 sailors, and three Marines lost their lives during the Great War. Of these, 51, nearly 30 percent died from influenza or pneumonia, likely brought on by the flu.
In Center Moriches, four more men were lost to the new conflict. Carlos J. Adams and Robert A. Lamb, both Army privates, were killed in action. Warren T. Dayton, a waist-gunner, and all but one of the seven-to-11-member crew aboard, died instantly when their B-17 bomber was shot down over Germany on Aug. 12, 1943. His death, and subsequent burial in Mount Pleasant Cemetery, affected the entire community.
Then, on July 10, 1944, Kurt E. Hartman, a U.S. Army sergeant, died of his wounds following the historic June 6 D-Day invasion at Normandy. He is buried in the American Cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach at Colleville-sur-Mer, France.
By war’s end, 11 men had been killed, including Thomas O. Conner, William Eaton, Alfred Fehner, John Prosser, Vernon Robinson, Robert Ross and Claude Schuyler.
Longtime Center Moriches families like the Bowditches, Hallocks, Havens, Hawkins, Penneys, Spragues and Roses sent their sons and daughters off to a war on the other side of the world.
Servicemen and women whose families had arrived as immigrants from Germany and Poland to work on local farms now set off to fight on soil their forbearers had left.
Many families had two, three, four, even five members serving somewhere in the conflict. Three of these—the Prosser family with three, the Fehner family with five, and the Robinson family with seven—each suffered a loss of one of their own.
The eldest sons of farm owners like the Mattesons and the Wilcoxes were classified 4F to remain at work on the farms to help support the war effort while their younger siblings served. Arthur Wilcox worked on ship repair at the U.S.N. base in Norfolk, Va. Wilcox’s cousin Betty Dayton served as a nurse in North Africa, while Warren flew B-17 raids over Germany. Lloyd Wilcox, who served in the armored tank division in Europe under Gen. George Patton, was present for the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945. After the war ended, he remained in Europe for six months to serve with the Army of Occupation.
Finally, the war was over. Men and women returned to Center Moriches to pick up the lives they had left behind. After distinguished service as a B-26 bomber pilot and squadron leader who flew 55 combat missions over North Africa, southern France and Northern Italy, Robert Matteson, Dartmouth Class of ’38, married Julie Fresenius in 1945, started a family and a career in fine boat building and repair. Among his creations was the 16-foot fiberglass Cottontail racing sloop.
Zollie Privett returned to oversee the education of little baby boomers who filled the elementary school, where he served as principal.
Chester G. Osborne, who had studied at the New England Conservatory of Music and was a trumpet player in the Boston Symphony under Arthur Fiedler, served in the U.S. Army Band before arriving in Center Moriches, where he taught music for many years, later becoming its director of music education. In addition to his teaching and family responsibilities, he composed music, wrote children’s books, and was for many years the curator at the Manor of St. George in Mastic. His son, Jimmy, continues that tradition, at his music school on Main Street.
Lloyd Wilcox, who had completed a degree in mechanical engineering prior to enlisting in the Army in 1944, eventually moved to Illinois, but returned every summer with his family. His daughter, Jane, a professional genealogist, has created an ancestry page about the Center Moriches Honor Roll, annotated with details of her family’s participation in World War II, much of which she learned after talking with her relatives as a child.
For Jane Wilcox, the Honor Roll is an important snapshot of Center Moriches during World War I and World War II, since the history gives us context for people’s lives, while people give story and meaning to its history.
“People talk about the Greatest Generation,” Jane said. “I’m really proud of my dad’s service. It’s important to remember the extraordinary circumstances the world found itself in, where every community in our country was touched.”
For the families whose loved ones served, and for those of us who live here, the Center Moriches Honor Roll remains, in tribute to those who sacrificed so much, a touchstone for our town.