Despite an uncertain future the Braman American Legion continues
Braman community members filled the American Legion Hennessey-Cunningham Post 259’s meeting hall Monday, singing songs and standing to recognize the names of fallen soldiers. Meanwhile, along the eastern wall of the building, a brown wooden shadow box containing military memorabilia sat on a table.
The box contained a Purple Heart, an Air Medal, a Distinguished Flying Cross, lapel pins and a yellowed pocket-sized copy of the New Testament. All the items belonged to the Post’s namesake, Braman native Lt. James L. Cunningham, who died during World War II – and all were given to the Post the night before the annual Memorial Day ceremony.
“We are probably amongst a handful – a handful – of American Legion posts nationwide that have this amount of memorabilia from their namesake,” said Legion member Marv Sandbek. “What an honor.”
Monday’s Memorial Day ceremony in Braman did more than honor fallen local veterans. For Sandbek, it was a day to honor Cunningham. Yet despite the excitement over Cunningham’s memorabilia, the ceremony was likely the Legion’s last at its present facility.
The Legion has called 404 Broadway Ave. home for nearly 13 years, but it will have to vacate the premises by mid-July, Sandbek said. The Kaw Nation, which owns the property, will move some of its gaming operations there.
The Legion was allowed to use the building for years thanks to a handshake agreement between former tribal and community leaders who have since died, Sandbek said. Legion members haven’t yet found a new location for hosting community events and regular meetings.
But during Monday’s ceremony, any concerns for the future were overshadowed by community participation and support for one of the town’s last remaining civic organizations. About 40 people – including American Legion and Legion Auxiliary members – honored the dozens of Braman veterans who have died, either in battle or after their military careers ended.
Sandbek welcomed those in attendance and thanked them for honoring the “departed comrades” from the area.
“We have many special attendees here today, and we are grateful for that,” Sandbek said. “I know that each of you has a connection to someone who has served our nation.”
After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, Legion members conducted the POW/MIA Empty Chair ceremony, which uses a table and chair to symbolize the missing presence of those who were captured, killed and never found in combat.
Legion members Rusty Partee and Gary Fultz conducted the ceremony. Partee explained the significance of the various items used in the display, including the American flag, which represents the fact that many soldiers may never return to their families.
“Let us pray to the Supreme Commander that all of our comrades will soon be back in our ranks,” he said. “Let us remember and never forget their sacrifice.”
Legion Auxiliary member Karen Fultz read the poem “In Flanders Fields,” written in World War I to pay tribute to soldiers who died fighting in Europe. After the poem recitation, Pastor Tom Howard of the Community Christian Church in Ponca City spoke about the meaning of Memorial Day, which few people in the United States understand, he said.
“We celebrate easter Every Sunday we gather, and we should celebrate it every day, not just once a year,” Howard said. “Like Easter, I believe Memorial Day should not be just a single day in a year. We should remember every day the sacrifice so many have made on our behalf over the years.”
Howard encouraged the audience to thank veterans, their families and God for the freedom people enjoy in the United States today.
“People died so that we can live,” Howard said. “We can make decisions today because of the sacrifice of others yesterday. … We think freedom is free. Freedom is not free. It is the most expensive gift we enjoy.”
After Howard’s remarks, Sandbek – a U.S. Air Force veteran – talked about the experience of being thanked for one’s military service.
“Oftentimes, and gratefully so, many of us hear someone come up and say, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Sandbek said. “Years ago, for me, that was really awkward. That was really awkward. The only thing I could come up with in response was, ‘Thank you for your support.’ And I’d do it all again right now. I think everyone in this room who has served would do that.”
As Sandbek spoke, veterans silently nodded their heads in agreement.
The ceremony then shifted to recognize by name the dozens of deceased Post members. After each service member’s name, branch of service and years of service were read, a small, brass bell was rung. Finally, the audience stood as Post member Robert Tipton picked up his shiny bugle and played taps.
WHAT’S IN A NAME
Cunningham, a 1935 graduate of Braman High School, served in the U.S. Army Air Corps as a copilot in the 373rd Bomb Squadron of the 308th Bomb Group. On Jan. 15, 1944, he and 10 other men were on a sea-sweeping mission to spot enemy ships when their plane crashed into a mountain. All the men on the aircraft died.
Cunningham’s belongings and military memorabilia were sent home to his widow, Thelma, who lived in Ponca City until her death, Sandbek said. Cunningham’s name was added to the Post after its members petitioned the national headquarters to do so.
Through the years, some of Cunningham’s memorabilia was passed on to family members. But the items that Cunningham’s niece donated Sunday aren’t the only items the Post has to honor Cunningham.
Four years ago, Sandbek was at a flea market in Ponca City when he found a World War II Army Air Corps flight bag with Cunningham’s name on it. The flea market vendor bought the bag at an estate sale in Enid, meaning it had changed hands at least twice since Cunningham’s widow received it after Cunningham’s death, Sandbek said.
The bag – now on display in the Legion building – was likely the last thing Cunningham touched before departing for his final mission, Sandbek said.
The first soldier for whom the Post is named, Private James Hennessey, died in World War I. Both Cunningham and Hennessey are buried at the Braman Cemetery.
Sandbek said the Post plans to work with an archivist to properly display the newly received memorabilia. He said he hopes the Post can find a facility not only to display its irreplaceable memorabilia, but also to continue playing a role in Braman’s future.
“We’re working hard to find a place, but it’s pretty grim,” Sandbek said. “We have to have a place to serve the community, veterans and their families, children and youth.”
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