Veteran aims to bring awareness to Van Cortlandt Park Memorial Grove

Riverdale resident and Korean War veteran Herb Barret who is hosting the 14th annual Veteran’s Day ceremony at Van Cortlandt Park Memorial Grove on Nov. 8 and trying to bring awareness to the site.
Photo by Jason Cohen

Within the third largest park in New York City, lies a small fenced in area that many people pass by without noticing. This is the Van Cortlandt Park Memorial Grove.

In 2006, Riverdale resident and Korean War veteran Herb Barret was riding his bike in the park when he stumbled upon the site. He found about 16 monuments and observed the area was quite filthy.

“When I first saw the memorial, I didn’t realize it was a memorial,” he recalled.

This Sunday, Nov. 8, will mark the 14th anniversary of Barret holding a Veteran’s Day ceremony there.

The Parks Department in partnership with the Peter G. Lehman No. 8646 VFW Post created the memorial in 1949 with 39 plaques commemorating soldiers from the Bronx who served in World War II and the Korean War. However, due to vandalism and poor maintenance, it fell into disarray.

Barret, 89, and his friend Don Tannen, a deceased WWII Navy flight line controller, began to investigate how they could fix up the memorial.

“I got the Parks Department involved because this place was trash,” he said.

He recalled that originally, most local elected officials did not even know about the Grove. The ball got rolling when former Councilman Oliver Koppell allocated $250,000 to the Parks Department to clean up the site.

Barret, a former airplane engine mechanic, who did a tour with the Marines, has lived in Riverdale since 1957. He is a member of the Jewish War Veterans of the USA and an active volunteer at the James J. Peters Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Kingsbridge. While Barret has not gone there lately because of the pandemic, he typically visits once a week.

With the Veteran’s Day ceremony a few days away, Barret is proud of how far the Grove has come since he first found it, but feels more should be done.

“I would like to see this memorial get recognized as a federal memorial like other memorials in Riverdale,” he said.

One such memorial is the Riverdale-Spuyten Duyvil-Kingsbridge Memorial Bell Tower, which was was listed on the National Register of Historic Places on Jan. 3, 2012

While he appreciates that about 100 people come to the ceremony each year, Barret stressed that Parks must maintain it on a regular basis, plant more shrubbery and put more signage around. He felt that the average person walks by and sees flags, but has no idea what it is.

Barret did commend students from Manhattan College for recently raking out the memorial.

“What I’m trying to do now is get this area improved,” Barret said.