YORKTOWN — Hundreds filled a church Friday for a man many of them never knew: Bob Graham, a World War II Marine Raider who fought at Guadalcanal and Bougainville but died this month at a nursing home with no relatives alive to honor him.
So, men in blue jackets — VFW Post 2285 Eastchester, American Legion Post 1009 Yorktown and others — their hair gone gray or white, lined pews inside St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church Friday morning in the Shrub Oak hamlet. Men in Rolling Thunder black biker vests sat in others. Younger veterans came, town officials and civilians too, and soon it was standing room only.
Rick Kast, of Yorktown, never met Graham, but he had to come.
“Both of my grandfathers were in World War I,” Kast said. “My father fought in Korea” and helped to found a Korean War Veterans chapter in Pennsylvania.
Kast’s son just got out of the Navy.
“I think this is a bit more than what people expected,” Kast said of the ceremony and turnout. He said his father would have been proud.
But at the heart of Friday’s commemoration was someone who knew Graham well, though not from any battlefield. Beth Regan, 27, befriended Graham when she volunteered at Fieldhome, a nursing home now called Yorktown Rehabilitation and Nursing Center.
Graham died at age 97 on April 12.
Regan, who grew up in Putnam Valley and now lives in North Carolina, put out the word that something needed to be done to remember him, and the request traveled fast across social media. People from around the world left messages on Reddit, she said. News stories followed, and veterans groups vowed they’d be there.
Shortly before 10 a.m., lines of people formed on either side of the church driveway. U.S. Marines in dress uniforms held rifles ready for a salute. The Westchester Firefighters Emerald Society Pipes and Drums band marched in, bagpipes keening. Then six New York City Police Department officers bore Graham’s casket, draped in the American flag, into the church.
Inside, Regan spoke to the sea of people who answered her call.
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“His story touched so many people who felt compelled to go above and beyond to put their own special touch on the celebration of an American legend,” Regan said. She added that “for so many of his living years, we didn’t have the chance for the country to say thank you or show him how much we appreciated what he did for us and for future generations.”
Graham and his wife Rosie had moved into the nursing home a month before Regan began volunteering there. Rosie died two years ago.
Regan’s first meeting with the Grahams lasted nearly three hours.
“Our connection was immediate,” she said in an interview.
For a while their get-togethers made no mention of Graham’s service as a Marine Raider, one of the elite units whose role included amphibious operations — landing ashore in rubber boats and going behind enemy lines.
Instead, for a time, Graham talked about his obsession with University of Notre Dame football. How he’d worked as a corrections officer at Sing Sing prison in Ossining. How he became an avid runner beginning in his 50s, doing 20 marathons. And how he could pick out the movie from the 1940s that a line came from with aplomb, she said.
“It took him a while to mention he was in World War II, let alone that he was a Marine Raider,” she said. When she or others expressed awe at his heroism, “he would dismiss it and say the real heroes are the ones who died in the war.”
Regan had given Graham a celebration before: A surprise 95th birthday party at the nursing home where Marine Raiders from Long Island came to help him celebrate.
But it wasn’t simply his military service that left a mark. Regan saw how Graham loved his wife, who used a wheelchair, had lost an eye and had Alzheimer’s.
Everyday, “he’d tell her she was so beautiful, how much he loved her,” Regan said. “There were times when she would call out to him just because she wanted to make sure he was still there, and he was so great about reassuring her and comforting her.”
Funeral of World War II veteran Bob Graham arrives at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Church in Shrub Oak April 26, 2019. With no close relatives, Beth Regan, 27, who befriended Graham while volunteering at the nursing home he lived, got the word out to have his funeral well attended.
Tania Savayan, email@example.com
Larry Lenahan, of Mahopac, who served in the Army, said what he witnessed Friday is, unfortunately, not what every veteran who dies experiences. For some who have no living relatives, there are relatively brief ceremonies attended by an honor guard and a few others.
After the mass Friday, the crowd stood solemnly as Graham was about to begin his final journey: Burial at Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
A Marine carried the folded American flag and gave it to Regan.
Marines fired rifles in salute, and there were mournful sounds of “Taps” and “Amazing Grace”
“Three hurrahs for Beth!” a man shouted.
“Hip hip hooray!” the crowd responded. “Hip hip hooray! Hip hip hooray!”
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