Ready again to honor World War I troops on Forest Park Drive: Our Neighborhood, The Way it Was

Photos courtesy of Woodhaven Cultural and Historical Society

On a hill overlooking Woodhaven sits a few dozen trees planted one hundred years ago in memory of the young locals who went off to fight in World War I but never came home.

In the days leading up to each Memorial Day, the ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary would decorate the trees in red, white, and blue ribbons. Friends and family of the fallen soldiers that the trees were dedicated to would leave notes and flowers at ‘their’ tree. And so, the Memorial Trees in Forest Park became established as part of Woodhaven’s Memorial Day tradition.

However, this tradition faded away in the early 1940s and the purpose of the trees along Forest Park Drive was forgotten for nearly 75 years. Why did it fade away? An integral part of the memorial in the park was a large granite monument with the names of the fallen soldiers.

It sat directly across the street from the old Golf Clubhouse, known today as Oak Ridge, which houses the administrative offices of Forest Park.

When Woodhaven Boulevard was widened, the old Legion home was torn down and a new one erected at 91st Street and 89th Avenue. It was decided to move the monument from Forest Park to the new home of Post 118. As a result, the parade was rerouted and over time, the meaning behind the trees was forgotten.

How did unique living war memorial come to be? After the war ended, communities around the country were looking for ways to memorialize the sacrifices of the young men who never came home.

Less than two weeks after the war ended, Queens Parks Commissioner Albert C. Benninger announced plans to “erect a memorial tablet in one of the parks in Queens, probably Forest Park, for the soldiers of this borough who lost their lives in battle.”

While the plans for a borough-wide memorial were eventually moved elsewhere, Forest Park was still eyed as the site for a more localized memorial. In early 1919, The Patriotic League of Woodhaven brought together a group of sixty delegates representing the civic, fraternal, religious, political and other organizations in the community to plan for a way to commemorate the young men who gave their lives in defense of their country.

The resulting organization, known as The Woodhaven War Heroes Permanent Memorial Committee, sought to use a site near the golf clubhouse in Forest Park and plant one oak tree for each of the young heroes. The trees were planted near the end of April and the dedication ceremony took place just six-months after the war had ended, on Sunday, May 11, 1919.

On that day, the families of the fallen soldiers attended the dedication of the oak trees in front of the golf clubhouse in Forest Park. The ceremony was presided over by one of the soldiers who did return home: James Pasta, one of the chief members of the Permanent Memorial Committee (he would go on to become the very first Commander of Woodhaven American Legion Post 118).

Prayers were offered by Reverend George Sherman of St. Thomas the Apostle Church and local boys and girls took part in the ceremony. As each name was called, they would place a red carnation in a large white cross.

At the end of the roll call, the cross and carnations were placed in an upright position among the Memorial Trees in the park overlooking the community the fallen heroes had lived in.

One hundred years later, the sacrifice the young men of Woodhaven made far from home is still remembered in the form of this living memorial. In 2017, the road which the trees line was officially co-named Forest Park Memorial Drive.

Each year, the Woodhaven Cultural & Historical Society keeps the decoration tradition alive and honors the fallen soldiers by adorning the trees with patriotic ribbons. Everyone is welcome to join; if interested, email us at woodhavenhistory@gmail.com or call 718-805-2002 for more information.

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