In honor of veterans

JoAnn Murphy’s lifelong commitment to service, and to the wellbeing and memory of veterans.

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The annual Avenue of Flags at Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven. –Allison Roberts

On Memorial Day, American Legion Post 257 placed nearly 450 U.S. flags in Oak Grove Cemetery in Vineyard Haven during the annual “Avenue of Flags” ceremony. “Every flag we place is in honor or in memory of a vet,” Post Commander JoAnn Murphy said. “When we first did this, we put up around 50; now we’re up to 450. We don’t put any more than this up because we just don’t have the people to help us put them up or take them down.”

Murphy was born and raised in Oak Bluffs. “The only time I wasn’t here was when I joined the Army, and when I moved to Texas for a few years after I got out. My whole family was here. My dad was in the Coast Guard, stationed at Gay Head. My grandfather was the chief at the Coast Guard station at Gay Head. One of my uncles was in the Air Force, and one was in the Navy. So I joined the Army,” Murphy laughed. “I get seasick.”

Murphy joined the Women’s Army Corps in 1972, and went to Fort McClellan in Alabama for training. After training, Murphy went to school at Fort Devens to become a Morse code interceptor. From there she worked in an Army security agency in Virginia. “Then I got shipped to Thailand. They had just opened it up for women. I was one of the first women to be there,” Murphy said. “We copied [listened to] the Viet Cong and the Cambodians. I was there when Saigon fell.”

She and other code interceptors tracked soldiers as best they could. “We had a map in the bay we worked in, so every time we knew where a unit was, we’d put a flag on that place on the map. We didn’t have a TV. We had a radio on the base that played music, but we didn’t know what was going on. The only information we got was from the board, and that really didn’t tell you a whole lot.”

When she came back home, Murphy worked as a veterans service officer (VSO) for Dukes County. The job entailed helping veterans with just about anything they needed. “It could be helping them with claims, services, giving them rides — you know, anything they need. It’s a very big job. At the time I was hired in 2001, I was one of only three women VSOs in the state. Today there are around 35 or 40, which is a big step in 20 years,” Murphy said.

Murphy became a commander of the Legion in 1999. When she first joined, there were 450 members, including WWII members. “Currently, we have 110 members — mostly WWII, Korean, and Vietnam vets today — not many younger vets,” Murphy said. “I think the older vets joined because they were all looking for camaraderie. Today you don’t see that as much. Maybe because it’s a different kind of war, and our young vets have so much trauma. We have a few younger people — in their 40s — but not many.”

Murphy had a lot of support from several men at the Legion. “A lot of the commanders were getting up in age, and wanted me to take over,” she said. “A few of them went to my husband and said, ‘We’d really like her to be commander,’ and my husband said, ‘Can’t you wait till the kids get older?’ And they told him that if they waited that long, they’d all be dead. Luckily, I became commander in time to work with several past commanders before they passed.”

Murphy is only the second female to be commander of the Legion. “Muriel Toomey, who was my husband’s great-aunt, was the first woman commander of the post. She was in WWII,” Murphy said. “She was from Chilmark, and she passed away in 1985. Her daughter reached out to me when I became commander, and gave us her uniform and cap. We have it up at the post.”

Local Legion Post 257 has a lot to be proud of. “We’re here to support veterans and our community,” Murphy said. “Our place has been used as a voting location, a church, and is currently being used by the Tisbury School as a space for students to eat breakfast and lunch until the construction work on the school is finished. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts use the building, and the firemen use the location for their dinners. We also run bingo, give two scholarships a year to Island graduating seniors, hold the ‘Avenue of Flags,’ and have been doing military funerals since 1982.”

And let’s not forget that the Legion also makes a mean lobster roll, and hosts a Christmas bazaar to help with the scholarships and to support veterans at the VA Hospital. And if that weren’t enough, they take care of all the veterans’ graves and the monuments.

“We bring kids over to the cemetery and teach them why it’s important that we don’t forget to honor our veterans,” Murphy said. “I love cemeteries. I always have. Now, some of the veterans who were part of the Legion are gone. The first year I did the ‘Avenue of Flags,’ my husband and I were walking through the cemetery, and he looked over at me and asked, ‘Who are you talking to?’ ‘All the people I knew,’ I told him.”

If you want to learn more about American Legion Post 257 in Vineyard Haven, visit its website at legion.org.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Jo Ann is a great Legion commander, a fine woman, and a lifelong friend. During my years living on the Vineyard, I truly enjoyed working with her as a member of Post 257. The Vineyard. and all the veterans on the island are fortunate to have her as a comrade and supporter. May God bless you, Jo Ann
    – Pastor Bob Barnett (Walkers’s Evangelical Presbyterian Church, Appomattox, VA and former member/chaplain of American Legion Post 257)

  2. Every year, when attending the Memorial Day Ceremony and witnessing the beautiful Avenue of Flags, I am humbled by Jo Ann’s dedication and mission to assure that honor and respect is paid to all veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. Martha’s Vineyard has a treasure—specifically, the US Army and VA Post 257 have a treasure whose many years of service stand testament to her dedication to the Island, the Island’s Veterans and to the community. Thank you, Jo Ann, all you touch are so much better for all you do. Take care & God Bless.

  3. Every year, when attending the Memorial Day Ceremony and witnessing the beautiful Avenue of Flags, I am humbled by Jo Ann’s dedication and mission to assure that honor and respect is paid to all veterans who made the ultimate sacrifice so we can enjoy the freedoms we have today. Martha’s Vineyard has a treasure—specifically, the US Army and VA Post 257 have a treasure whose many years of service stand testament to her dedication to the Island, the Island’s Veterans and to the community. Thank you, Jo Ann, all you touch are so much better for all you do. Take care & God Bless.

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