‘The Cat Hollow Mystery’

The ‘Greatest Generation’ built a monument to vets; this generation is refurbishing it

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One of the plaques at Veterans Memorial Park.

Tom Brokaw called his book “The Greatest Generation,” referring to World War II–era Americans, and the Island has an example of their grit in the making of War Veterans Memorial Park in Vineyard Haven.

Islanders from all strata — pick and shovel guys, blue bloods, and bankers — and the families of at least 29 war veterans worked long and hard more than 50 years ago to create the Veteran’s Memorial Park, but time has erased many of the details of their effort.

One chronicler, Mike Flynn, did some digging in 2013 on what he termed “The Cat Hollow Mystery.” Cat Hollow was the name attached to a piece of town-owned swamp that is now Veterans Memorial Park. Flynn turned his story, published in the Nov. 7, 2013, EDITION of the Vineyard Gazette, over to retiring Dukes County Veterans Agent JoAnn Murphy several years ago.

Murphy, who is continuing as commander of American Legion Post No. 257 in Tisbury, is trying to reconstruct the big picture. In a recent interview with The Times, Murphy said that the 50th anniversary celebration in 2014 of Veterans Park, as we call it familiarly today, led to the discovery of some mysteries related to its founding. “I was so grateful to get the information Mike Flynn had. He just showed up one day and turned over his research. I hadn’t seen him before, and I haven’t seen him since,” she said.

The county has a new stone memorial with all 29 names stored on-Island, ready to be installed at Veterans Park by the town this fall. But the lack of details and understanding about the original memorial project chafes at Murphy.

She knows the park was dedicated in 1953, the project took 12 years to complete, and that it was turned over to the town in 1964 by the nonprofit War Veterans Memorial Inc. committee (George Rice, president, and beloved Island banker Bill Honey, treasurer), with a $6,000 check for improvements. The project reportedly cost $30,000, with all labor donated and funds raised by bean suppers and other community means.

Records from creaky ironbound volumes say that “not a cent of public funds” was used for the project, that the park was created and constructed by volunteers.

The original list from extant records, Murphy’s research, and Gazette articles reads like a Who’s Who of Martha’s Vineyard families. The names of the 29 men include Arthur Andrews, George Belain, Edmund J. Berube, Douglas Brown, Harold Cantor, Carl Carlson, Adelbert Colby, Edward Constantino, Robert Cromwell, Manuel Enos, Robert Foote, Richard Francis, Robert Gilkes, Lester E. Healy, Walter E. Hermaneau, John D. Kelley, Allan G. Kenniston, George C. Merry, Celestino A. Oliver, Walter Rheno, Morris Shapiro, Donald S. Swift, John A. Silva, John P. Silva, Thomas Silva, Milton S. Silva, Richard R. Thompson, Percy G. Tilton, and Robert Foote.

“We have a list of 29 names of veterans, mostly from the WWII and Korean Conflict era, but we don’t know why those specific people were chosen, or if others were chosen. And we have some of the individual plaques memorializing them that were originally set under maple trees that were planted along the walkway leading from the park’s parking lot to the Cumberland Farms/Five Corners area,” she said. “We believe mowing and plowing may have displaced some. Some are at the M.V. Museum, others may be in attics and garages somewhere, and some of the trees that were planted seem to have been lost as well.” 

Murphy is retiring as veteran’s agent at month’s end. ”But I’m not going anywhere. I’m post commander, and I’m involved in various veterans’ projects,” she said, indicating the Cat Hollow caper will have her ongoing attention.

Paperwork is gold in the military, and Murphy rigorously saves and organizes paperwork, but knows she will have to recreate the complete story of Veterans Park because the paper trail is missing.

The Legion Post has resources that will help. For example, The Times showed Murphy a photo we took of a plaque dedicated to John Silva, who died in Iwo Jima in 1945. Murphy dove into her vets’ records, and identified the correct family connection within a few minutes.

And there are town and committee documents from the mid-1960s that are proving helpful. We spent several hours with Murphy reviewing documents that provide a picture of how Veterans Park came to be using that swampy piece of unused town land. 

Opening a large and thick ironbound Volume Two (Volume One is missing) of meetings and transactions of the Veterans Memorial Park Inc., Murphy pointed to entries dating back to the mid-1950s. “The park is landlocked by private property, and they traded or purchased or sweet-talked the rights to bordering land and rights of way to get the footprint we see today,” Murphy said.

Murphy also discovered the war veterans committee dictated the park was to be enjoyed by Island youth, and that a town committee was to be established to oversee the park and its use and upkeep. The town does groom the park carefully, but Murphy has found no evidence of an oversight committee in place. 

There’s likely more to be revealed. Stay tuned.