Marines, both young and old, gathered to honor a forgotten hero of a forgotten war buried in a forgotten cemetery on Sunday morning. The North Shore Queens Detachment 240 of the Marine Corps League came in uniform to salute and rededicate the headstone of Pfc. Irving Aron, who was killed in action in Nicaragua on Dec. 31, 1930 and posthumously awarded a Navy Cross.
Aron, a Brooklyn native, is buried at Bayside Cemetery in Ozone Park beside his mother, Cecilia. A plaque noting his name and accomplishments had been pilfered, as have many others in the derelict Jewish cemetery.
After a traditional color guard entrance, and a chaplain’s invocation describing Aron’s “feats of valor” and “respect of fellow Marines,” Jim Seaman Sr., the assistant area vice commandant of the Marine Corps League, read Aron’s citation from President Herbert Hoover:
“The patrol of which he was a member, while on telephone line repair work, was attacked by a vastly superior force of bandits, and upon the opening of the bandit fire, Pfc.Aron took up a position alongside the trail and returned the fire. After maintaining his position for about an hour he was seriously wounded in the arm. Without regard for his personal safety and disregarding his wound, he took up the fire with his pistol in his left hand and continued to assist in the defense until he was killed. Pfc. Aron’s conduct during this action was of the highest order and beyond the ordinary call of duty.”
The U.S. military operation in Nicaragua was intended to protect American civilians living there during a civil war.
The Marines also honored Anthony Pisciotta, the cemetery volunteer who brought Aron’s story to the Marine Corps League’s attention. An MTA bridge inspector, Pisciotta spends his Sundays cleaning up the decrepit cemetery, where he learns the stories of its inhabitants and the history associated with them, as he clears walkways, removes overgrown vines and picks up fallen stones.
“Irving Aron and Anthony Pisciotta found each other and touched each other’s lives in the past and present,” Seaman said. “Anthony found the headstone desecrated and contacted the national headquarters of the Marine Corps League and the North Shore Queens detachment fixed the situation.”
Seaman asked the state to make Pisciotta an honorary member of the Marine Corps League and presented him with a certificate at the ceremony.
“Anthony is one of the rare people who sees something that needs doing and fixes it,” Seaman said.
“Every one of these stones has a story and we owe it to these people to treat them with dignity and respect,” Pisciotta said as he accepted the honor. “[Pfc. Aron] went to a country he’d probably never heard of to fight in a war most of us don’t even remember.”
When Joe Wolfe of Arkansas, a Marine who served in Iraq, took an interest in his family history, he learned he had family at Bayside. He also discovered a Brooklyn Daily Eagle article about Pfc. Aron. He told Pisciotta about his fellow Marine and asked him to make sure there was a flag on his grave and “give him an extra oo-rah.”
Pisciotta found the headstone devoid of its metal plaque and replaced it with a temporary, plastic plate and brought the Marines down to take a look. Appalled by the theft, the detachment raised money for a replacement.
However, Joe Robinson, a member of the Marine Corps League, told David Goldstein, the owner of Parkside Memorial Chapels, about Aron, and Goldstein, along with Victor de la Cruz, the head of the monument department, decided to engrave the stone on Aron’s grave for free.
The detachment had planned to give the money to Pisciotta for cemetery repair work, but he would not accept the $1,000 check and insisted it go to Toys for Tots instead.
Terrance Holliday, the mayor’s commissioner of Veterans Affairs, said, “we don’t have enough Anthonys in the world” before reading a letter from Mayor Bloomberg.
“Your selfless acts to honor the memory of Private Aron, a Brooklyn-born Marine and Navy Cross recipient who bravely gave his life while on active duty in Nicaragua, exemplify the spirit of service and giving back that makes our city so great,” Bloomberg wrote.
State Sen. Joe Addabbo Jr. (D-Howard Beach) thanked “everyone involved with the upkeep and maintenance of the cemetery,” for enhancing the “cosmetic look” of the space, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods.
“Veterans Day is not just one day of the year,” Addabbo continued. “We all have an obligation to do what we can for our veterans, those who are here and those who have passed.”
The engraved stone was unveiled and a wreath set upon it. Some people placed stones on the headstone, as per Jewish custom. Andrew Schultz, the executive director of the Community Association for Jewish At-Risk Cemeteries, read a closing prayer and the Marines saluted Pfc. Aron, while ceremonial music was played.
Several people milled around afterwards remarking on the ceremony and the sense of having done a good thing.
“Beautiful might be an understatement,” Schultz said. “This was a way to highlight life and the impact one person makes in this world. There are a lot of wonderful things here, with Jews and non-Jews shaking hands and embracing.”
“For me, it was kind of a new experience to have everybody gather to honor this Pfc. who was killed a long time ago,” said James Slagle, 11, a Young Marine, who attended the ceremony.
Pisciotta contacted Pfc. Aron’s relatives, descendents of his older sister Edna, who now live in Idaho and California. At age 92, Carol Uhalley fondly remembers playing with Irving as a young child. Aron also had an older brother, Mortimer, who was MIA in World War I.
Carol’s daughter Joan said she wished she could have been there.
“It was a very touching and beautiful- looking ceremony,” said Janet Rush, a great-niece of Aron. “We’re quite thankful. This came right out of the blue and so many people with big hearts came into the middle of this.”
“I’m just glad we did a good thing,” League Commandant Bill Novack said. “Marines don’t leave anybody behind.”