By Naeisha Rose
Borough President Melinda Katz honored three war veterans from different eras at the Veterans Memorial Garden at Queens Borough Hall in Kew Gardens last Friday.
Before the observance was underway, Katz said it was vital that today’s youth understand the importance of the armed forces and what they represent.
“These services — the parades that we do this weekend — it is more than coming out and having fun and seeing our community,” said Katz. “I do think it is important that our young people know the history of our wars, and understand the losses that have been sacrificed in order to get where we are today.”
Color guards for the ceremony included members from the junior reserve officers’ training corps at Francis Lewis High School under the command of Sgt. Major Charles Cabrera.
Kicking off the Pledge of Allegiance was U.S. Army Specialist David Kablan and singing the National Anthem was Whole Health Coordinator Tanya Thomas of the city Department of Veterans Services.
The first veteran to be honored was Sgt. Ellen T. Mendonca, a radio relay equipment repairwoman in the Air Force during the Cold War era from 1974 to 1978.
“I would not be the third woman borough president of Queens if it were not for women that came before me like you,” Katz said.
After retiring from the military as a technician in the navigational communications office for the 1901st Squad at Travis Airfield Base in California, Mendonca went to Maine, where she had a daughter and a son.
“The G.I. Bill really helped me a lot,” said Mendonca. “That money is really for you to survive and it really did help.”
After getting a divorce, Mendonca became a single mom and pursued her education, earning a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies at Brooklyn College and a master’s in Elementary Education at Queens College.
Mendonca was a part of the Friends of Seaside Library at Belle Harbor. She has lived at Rockaway Community Park for nearly 26 years and her son will soon retire as a Master Sergeant from the Air Force after 22 years of service.
The second veteran honored at the observance was Sgt. Willie Burks, a Jamaica native and a soldier of the United States Army in 1968 for the Vietnam War. Burks was wounded the year he served, but was awarded the Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for his acts of bravery and valor, according to Katz.
After being shot down in a helicopter during the Vietnam War, Burks became a 911 operator and for the past 20 years he has overseen a PTSD group in Queens to help soldiers, despite having moved to Rockville Center, L.I.
Burks has been married for 53 years, he has a son and daughter, a grandson who is a semi-pro tennis player, and a granddaughter who is in medical school. He is looking forward to his 54th wedding anniversary June 3.
“It is indeed an honor to receive such an award,” Burks said. “I hope all our veterans will be home soon and Happy Memorial Day.”
The last honoree was Sgt. Kaz Yamaguchi, a linguist during World War II who is a first-generation Japanese-American born in Long Island City and raised in Ozone Park.
“Mr. Yamaguchi served in the Pacific, in the Philippines and Japan as part of the Military Intelligence Service,” said Katz. “His assignments with MIS included conducting debriefings with prisoners.”
As a Japanese-American soldier during the 1940s, Yamaguchi often found himself part of two worlds, especially after Japan’s surprise military strike on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“Many times I was between a rock and a hard place,” Yamaguchi said.
Yamaguchi, despite his internal conflict, was committed to his job and even helped to prevent at rebellion in Japan.
While at the American Ambassador Building in Japan, General Douglas MacArthur’s wife, Henrietta Cromwell, wanted to have extended water supply for the building, but Yamaguchi learned that the villagers near the embassy depended on the water for their farms. The sergeant communicated the villagers’ concerns to other soldiers and a water tank was built at the embassy as an alternative.
After he left the military, he worked at his grandfather’s ornamental horticulture business, and he has retired to New Jersey in order to spend time with his grandchildren who live there. He also volunteers at the Northport VA Medical Center.
Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose