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One man’s mission: To honor all Norwalk servicemen who gave their lives

The Wall That Heals, a three-quarter scale model of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. travels the country. In 2022, it visited Norwalk. (Photo courtesy of Rich Bonenfant Photography.)

NORWALK — Every day is Memorial Day for Jeffrey DeWitt.

The Air Force veteran has devoted the past four years to researching and recreating the stories of the 321 Norwalk servicemen who gave their lives during war. Many of their names are affixed to monuments, streets, and buildings around Norwalk, but “without their stories,” he says, “they’re just names on a plaque.”

DeWitt’s website, https://norwalkctheroes.org, chronicles the lives he painstakingly pieced together from old newspapers, letters, yearbooks, genealogy sites, emails, and interviews with families and friends.

A prankster. A 13-year-old who talked his way into the Navy. A diminutive corporal portrayed by a fellow Marine as “the tallest 5 feet ever recorded.”

This year, for the first time, ROTC cadets from Brien McMahon High School will carry banners in Monday’s Memorial Day Parade bearing the names of these and 318 others whose sacrifice DeWitt honors on his site.

The wars they died fighting, from the Civil War to Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, are the starting points on the tour. Click on a war to reveal a list of names. Click on a name and get to know a hero.

The prankster, Private First Class Wilfredo Perez Jr., once littered his mother’s bath with chicken seasonings that made her smell like poultry for three days.

PFC Wilfredo Perez Jr., killed in Baghdad in 2003. His name lives on at
the 15.6-mile marker on I-95. (Photo courtesy of Jeff DeWitt.)
Corporal Michael John Scanlon, “the tallest 5 feet ever recorded,” died
a hero in January 1967. (Photo courtesy of Jeff DeWitt.)

The 5-foot Marine was Corporal Michael John Scanlon, who had to get a height waiver to enlist. Once in, he made it a point to volunteer for the toughest assignments. Scanlon was awarded a posthumous Silver Star in 1967, after he died trying to retrieve an enemy grenade despite having been twice wounded. He was 21 years old, and every inch a hero.

Chief Yeoman Anthony F. Aquino enlisted a month before his 14th birthday, passing himself off as 17. In a letter to the editor of The Norwalk Hour, dated September 24, 1941, a fellow sailor wrote: “I’m sure a lot of his friends in Norwalk would be pleased to hear that he is now on the Asiatic Station on the USS Pillsbury and having a wonderful time.”

The Pillsbury was sunk by Japanese cruisers six months later. All hands were lost. Aquino, the first Norwalk serviceman to die in World War II, is one of the three namesakes of Norwalk’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 603. The others, Pvts. Anthony Mulvoy and Aime Tarlov, were killed by the same bomb in France during World War I.

Mulvoy’s son, William, a month old when his father died, was killed in the second World War. Although father and son never met, they are together for eternity, buried side-by-side in Riverside Cemetery.

DeWitt, their biographer, was a telecommunications specialist in the Air Force who served 26 years before retiring in 2008. He was a Chief Master Sergeant, the highest enlisted grade.

He’s now a youthful 61, with a trim build and military bearing. Stacks of his eight self-published books – five about veterans from Norwalk – line his basement office, where his service medals, including eight Outstanding Unit awards, are neatly displayed. He shares the Wolfpit neighborhood home he grew up in with his wife, Kim, and their aging Siamese. He also has a 38-year-old daughter, Michelle, from a previous marriage.

Jeffrey DeWitt, who built a website honoring Norwalk servicemen who died in war, with the medals he earned during his 26-year career with the
U.S. Air Force. (Photo credit: Nancy Shulins)

A Norwalk High School graduate and “a very mediocre student,” DeWitt made up for it later, attending night school to earn a bachelor’s degree, followed by two master’s degrees. After retiring from the Air Force, he worked for the University of Phoenix, Arizona State, and UConn Stamford. His most recent gig, as a franchisee for JD Travel Group, was cut short by COVID in 2020.

The military “gave me discipline that has lasted a lifetime,” says DeWitt, who still makes the bed first thing each morning. He permits himself one small indulgence: He no longer makes hospital corners.

The names on the plaques at Calf Pasture and the Green were the starting point for DeWitt, whose website bio identifies him as “Veteran Advocate. Researcher. Storyteller.”

He is a life member of the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars, a board member and historian of the Iwo Jima Memorial Historical Foundation, and the 2022 recipient of the Veterans Public Service Award For Excellence from Central Connecticut State University.

His latest project involves telling the stories of Norwalk’s 229 Purple Heart recipients.

“Norwalk may be the only city in the state that knows the life stories of all veterans who died during wartime,” he says, the closest he comes to boasting, which is to say, not very.

In addition to war stories, https://norwalkctheroes.org captures the anguish that goes with them, as well as the anger and sorrow that attend the sudden loss of a husband, a brother, a son, or a friend.

Nor does the site shy away from heroism’s dark underbelly.

It includes Seaman Walter Archer, 21, who died in Bridgeport Hospital after drinking poison while home on furlough in 1943, according to an Associated Press report. Norwalk’s third Medal of Honor recipient, Private Herbert Irving Preston, is listed despite his achievement being erased after he deserted. Also contained: a grim summary by The Norwalk Hour that describes in graphic detail the effects of poisonous gas on human lungs.

A plaque honoring Norwalk’s Wilfredo Perez Jr., at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn: “I left everyone I loved behind…”
(Photo courtesy of Jeff DeWitt.)

PFC Perez, the prankster, was eager to go to Iraq to help fight the Global War on Terror, but he and his buddies “were not prepared for what the heat did to them mentally; he wrote about not having water and needing to laugh,” his sister said.

An Army infantryman, Perez was one of three soldiers killed July 26, 2003, while guarding a hospital 45 miles northeast of Baghdad. Two days after his death at 24, he was awarded the Bronze Star.

His name lives on at the 15.6-mile marker on I-95; his legacy, on a plaque at Cypress Hills Cemetery in Brooklyn, that reads in part: “I left everyone I loved behind and laid my life on the line…I am here because of terrorism. Racism. Hate.”

A fellow Bronze Star recipient, 21-year-old Sergeant Michael Paquin, who served on the front lines of the Cambodian border, wrote his mother that he was living for the wedding day he did not live to see. He died shortly before Christmas, 1967, of injuries from a Viet Cong shell barrage, the ninth Norwalker to die in the Vietnam War, the sixth that year, and the fourth GI.

The Civil War claimed 72 Norwalk lives; the two World Wars, 220. Nine Norwalk servicemen died in the Korean War, half as many as died in the Vietnam War. Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom claimed 2.

Compelling as they are, however, this isn’t a story about numbers.

The Shea-Magrath Memorial at Calf Pasture Beach is named for John David Magrath (WWII) and Daniel John Shea (Vietnam), Norwalk sons awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. military medal for gallantry and bravery in combat. The memorial also honors all Norwalk veterans who have died in service since World War II. Their names are on the back side, facing the water.

The cannon on the Green. On one of the sides of the cannon on the Green is a list of the Norwalk nurses who volunteered during World War I. (Photo courtesy of Jeff DeWitt.)

No website of wartime heroics is complete without Captain Roderick S.G. Hall, who survived in the Alps for six months cutting Nazi supply lines before being captured, tortured, and hanged. The 3,500-word letter he wrote two months before his capture was buried in a bottle in the yard of a trusted Italian family. There it remained until the Allies liberated northern Italy.

Hall’s letter was read into the record at the war crimes trial of the Nazi officers accused of killing him. Convicted, they, too, were hanged. The letter, having done its job, was then ordered sent to Hall’s mother, Gertrude Merrill, in Norwalk.

Merrill lived on East Avenue, as did nine of the servicemen who lost their lives, the most of any street, DeWitt discovered. Five of the dead lived next door or across the street from one another.

POWs and MIAs have a separate category on the site, as do the women who served as nurses in World War I. Their names also appear on the base of the cannon on the Norwalk Town Green, albeit “in an inconspicuous corner,” DeWitt says.

All of the women who signed on as nurses during the two world wars made it home safely. Nonetheless, DeWitt included the World War I women on his site because he wanted to know who they were. He also felt strongly their stories needed to be told lest they be lost to time.

“The First World War entailed horrific conditions and injuries to those who fought. The recovery from that action was oftentimes led by women like those on this list who volunteered to be there.”
In four years, DeWitt’s website has generated more than 50,000 views – respectable, though he hopes for more. “I would love to see ROTC students or students in social studies classes each pick someone and tell their story.”

On this holiday synonymous with the start of summer, with picnics, barbecues, and family gatherings – “all great things,” DeWitt says – he also hopes the city pauses to consider the cost of freedom, and to remember the people who paid it.

Their names are all around us, not only on his website, but at City Hall and the Green, Calf Pasture and Veterans Park, in our cemeteries and on our street signs.

We have only to look.

Comments

2 responses to “One man’s mission: To honor all Norwalk servicemen who gave their lives”

  1. Jonathan Gage

    Jeffrey DeWitt: Thank you for your Air Force service, and for bringing to life the men and women who died serving our country.

    1. Thank you Jonathan. It’s an honor for me.

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