Preserving memories of veterans' sacrifices

Railway workers' World War I tribute gets helping hand

May 29, 2000|By Deborah Bach | Deborah Bach,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

You might drive by without noticing it, this slab of stone and bronze outside an old railway station in the little Carroll County town of Union Bridge.

You might not notice the 774 names carved into it, each grouping of characters a representation of an individual life, of departures and homecomings and loved ones left behind. But that was a long time ago, more than 80 years now, and many of those stories died with the only people who could have told them.

Jo Israelson realized that when she got involved in trying to restore the World War I monument at the old Union Bridge railway station that houses the Western Maryland Railway Museum. Israelson went around town looking for relatives of veterans and couldn't find any. A funeral home director told her as best he could remember, the last local World War I veterans had been buried a few years earlier.

The monument bears names found in the town, but the histories behind them, the remembrances of what it was like to head off to war, are mysteries to Israelson.

"The fact is, there's nobody to talk to any more," she says. "If we don't somehow preserve [the monument], who will?"

Israelson grew up with war etched on her consciousness - at 49, she's old enough to remember the Vietnam War, and her father, grandfather and an uncle served in World War II. It was something Israelson's family never talked about. But as middle age approached, she began thinking about the wars fought in her lifetime and wondering what it all meant. A few years ago, Israelson heard an interview with NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, whose book "The Greatest Generation" details the experiences of Americans who served in World War II. Israelson was particularly moved by the reading of a passage from Brokaw's book describing his visit to a cemetery in a U.S. town with the last surviving resident able to identify the graves of local war veterans.

Israelson began thinking that if her generation didn't preserve the memory of the lives affected by those battles, they would fade into obscurity.

She became interested in the monument outside the railway station, near her home, which to her signifies much more than a simple registry.

"These people had families. It's not just the name of one person - it's the name of the whole culture of a group," she says. "I think if we don't start preserving the monuments to the past, we do ourselves a disservice and do those men and women a disservice."

The monument Israelson and others want to preserve was dedicated in 1920 by employees of the now-defunct Western Maryland Railway Co. It reads simply: "Western Maryland Railway Honor Roll" and below that, "World War 1917-1918."

Through her inquiries, Israelson found out three other railway monuments like the one in Union Bridge exist - in Hagerstown, Cumberland and Elkins, W.Va. The Union Bridge monument, she has learned, was originally at a Baltimore station and was moved to Union Bridge in the late '60s or early '70s for reasons Israelson hasn't been able to uncover.

"We're trying to solve the information mystery," she says. "So if anybody knows anything or has pictures, we want to know."

Every Wednesday John Sater, 77, works at the station, with five other members of the Western Maryland Railway Historical Society. The group is painstakingly restoring the old brick station, and Sater, who served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, would like to see the monument restored, too. Without palpable reminders, he says, younger generations will move forward without pausing to reflect on the past.

"I think people are forgetting," he says. "They'll forget if we don't have these."

Time has taken a toll on the monument. The plaque bearing the names, presumably of Western Maryland Railway employees, has detached from the stone and twisted. It's held on by a clothesline. Israelson says repairing the monument is estimated to cost about $7,000, money she hopes to raise through donations.

On Wednesday, when the annual firefighters' parade rolls through town, Israelson will hand out fliers and collect money at her home and studio in the old Union Bridge town hall at 10 E. Broadway St.

Israelson is on a committee working to revitalize Union Bridge's Main Street, a project intended to bridge the town's past and future.

Restoration of the war monument fits with that objective, but it clearly means something more personal to Israelson. She doesn't have children but has recently been talking with friends who do about believing in something strongly enough to send sons and daughters away to war.

Just what would it take, Israelson wonders, to make that choice?

In a philosophical sense, anyone would like to think she would do what's needed to protect the rights and freedoms Americans enjoy, she says. But unless war is at the doorstep, Israelson believes, seeing one's nearest and dearest off to battle would be an excruciating task.

Israelson thinks about that when she looks at those 774 names. It's the least the next generation can do, she says, to remember.

"I really think it's about honoring people. Whether it's by choice they went to war or they were drafted. The fact is, they laid down their lives," she says. "Americans are fortunate that we've never had a foreign war on our own soil. I think we should be thankful for that."

Contributions can be sent to: WMR War Memorial Fund, Farmers & Mechanics National Bank, Union Bridge Branch, P.O. Box 489, Union Bridge, 21791.

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