Vanaski: These vets truly not forgotten
When Nick Masters purchased the former Fort McKeever VFW Post 623 in Pittsburgh’s North Side in January, it was not in good shape.
The roof was leaking, and there was structural damage to the building on Western Avenue. But as he went through the contents, he realized there were some important things inside: old photos, uniforms, flags and other memorabilia.
Much of it was in poor condition, but Masters called the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum.
“I hated to throw it away,” he told me.
Pittsburgh is the place where the VFW was born. The first organization meeting for the Veterans of Foreign Wars was held in 1914 where the University of Pittsburgh student union now sits. It was a place for veterans to rediscover camaraderie as they were returning home.
These days, however, more and more posts are facing the same fate as the McKeever post. Although it once had hundreds of members, the McKeever post finally closed when the handful of men who still frequented it could no longer handle the maintenance on a building whose doors were open just one day a week.
So what do you do when you find history in an old post? It was Michael Kraus, Soldiers & Sailors’ curator, who took Masters’ call. Part of his job is to go to such posts when they are shuttered to see whether there’s anything that can still be used to tell veterans’ stories. Often, these closed posts can be like time capsules, full of personal pieces of a soldier’s life, and of his bond with other soldiers. During eight years in his position, Kraus has done three or four such scavenger hunts.
At a closed post in McKeesport, Kraus found a soldier’s mess kit — including a plate, fork and spoon — which belonged to a Marine from World War I. It was quite a find, but he noticed that it looked as though it had been buried. Looking into the history of David Burton Foster, Kraus found the kit had been buried with him when he died at war in France, and stayed with him when his body was relocated two more times. Kraus said he has no idea how the kit wound up at the post.
But Kraus said he never knows what he’s going to find when a VFW post closes, but there are generally standard items: flags, boxes of records, old uniforms and photos. Lots of them. They’re all items that sometimes haven’t been touched in decades, so they’re covered in dust.
“You have to be ready to get dirty,” he said.
The McKeever Post 623 was established on Feb. 3, 1921, and its original members had recently returned home from World War I. It was the 623rd post to open in the country, thus the post number.
There was a 4-by-4 posterboard there with photos of about 200-300 past members, but it was heavily damaged.
“Nine and a half out of 10 would have thrown them away,” Kraus said. Fortunately, Masters didn’t. When Kraus carefully removed the photos, he found the names of the men on the back. The museum is now in the process of digitally scanning these photos for an exhibit.
It’s an important way to keep alive the history of veterans who, too often, are forgotten.