For many in Howard Beach, the namesake of Charles Park is a mystery. But for those who know who Frank Charles was, his is a story every neighborhood resident should know.
That’s why several years ago, the American Legion Post #1404, based in Broad Channel but including a number of Howard Beach residents as members, sought to construct a memorial sign telling the story of Charles, the first resident of Howard Beach to die in action at war.
In May, five years, one hurricane and over $5,000 later, they unveiled a sign on the east side of the park facing Hawtree Creek where Charles lived, only to find last weekend that it had been damaged.
“It’s terrible,” said Ed Murray, past commander of American Legion Post #1404. “There’s no respect.”
A hole blew open in the Plexiglas panel protecting the sign and a large dent mars the back of the sign.
“I think it was a firecracker, an M-80 probably,” said Ray York, another past commander of the troop. “Some kids, probably on the Fourth of July. They must have taped it on the glass and lit it.”
Initially, some residents, including Dorothy McCloskey, president of Friends of Charles Park, thought it was a bullet, but no fragments were found, nor did it penetrate through the steel skin.
“If it was a bullet, it would have gone right through,” York said.
Murray pointed to red powder on the bottom of the sign inside the glass as a sign that a firecracker was the likely culprit.
The sign tells the story of Charles, who was born in 1894 in Manhattan. His mother died in childbirth and he and his two sisters were left in a Staten Island orphanage. Eventually his aunt and uncle, Agnes and Bill Charles, adopted the children and they moved to what is now Hamilton Beach.
Charles and his uncle built bungalows along the basin near the Howard Hotel resort in what is now the park named for him. He had a promising athletic career ahead of him before he was drafted to fight in World War I. He died in action in France on July 21, 1918 at age 23. Four years later his body was brought back to the United States and buried with full military honors at Calvary Cemetery in Sunnyside.
Post #1404 had to jump through a number of hurdles before the members could have the sign installed.
First they had to raise the money. Then they had to find someone to make the sign. Then they had to fight the National Park Service, which for several years opposed its construction. Luckily, York said the post found Paul Ohana, owner of the Rockaway sign-making company ADP USA. The firm has been contracted by the NPS to make signs for Gateway National Recreation Area, which Charles Park is part of. That, along with a change in the administration at Gateway, made it look likely the sign would finally go up.
Then Hurricane Sandy wiped out Ohana’s workshop in Rockaway Park and with it, the near-finished sign. Another one had to be built and the administrators of Gateway finally approved the sign’s construction. It went up at the former site of the flag pole next to the tennis courts in May. A fence that sealed off the area was taken down to open it up to the public.
“We didn’t want to fence it in,” York explained. “We wanted people to come up to it and read it and learn about Charles.”
Inspecting the damage on Monday, Ohana said he would fix the sign, replace the section of it that was damaged and install a new glass protection that would be more difficult to shatter.
“I hope they find who did this,” he said. “What is wrong with people?”
Murray said he would speak to the police about then incident and hoped they could investigate further.