Nov. 10—WADDINGTON — American Legion Champion-Hobkirk Post 420 will host dedication festivities on Saturday for an expansion project named after a village native and Vietnam War veteran who was seriously wounded and incorrectly reported killed in action by the Army in 1966, resulting in five days of sweeping, exhaustive emotions for his family and friends.
Meanwhile, as the legion expands its footprint, the commander of Post 420 hopes its membership will grow.
"All of the Legions and veterans organizations need help because the guys don't seem like they're joining like they should," said Commander Michael S. McIntosh. "Down the road, if they don't start joining, we're going to start going belly-up."
McIntosh had one veteran in mind when his vision for an expansion of Post 420 took shape.
"I happened to be talking to Bobby one day and asked him why he hasn't been to the Legion in a while," he said.
"Bobby" was Robert C. Tiernan, who died in August 2019 in Newport News, Virginia, at the age of 76. The Vietnam veteran and paratrooper served in the Army for nine years and afterward owned and operated Tiernan Painting and Remodeling for 25 years. He was a Post 420 member and routinely visited the local Legion when he was in town. But McIntosh noticed those visits decreasing.
"He always belonged to our Legion and when he was up here, he'd always come in," McIntosh said. "But he just couldn't sit very long. I asked him why and he said, 'I can't sit that long at a bar stool, Mike. I can't do it anymore.' I know what he means. I can't either. That's one of the reasons why I'm doing like I'm doing — a relaxing area for the older guys like me."
A 60-foot-by-20-foot addition has been built at the Legion, 23 Fenton St.
"You're not going to be crowded," McIntosh said. "You could probably put 100 people in there, no problem."
Volunteer labor and a grant were key for the success of the expansion project.
"It was all volunteer," McIntosh said. "We got about $50,000 into that thing and we couldn't have built if for less than $150,000 to $200,000."
McIntosh said a $16,200 grant was received from the Rock Charitable Fund of the Northern New York Community Foundation. The fund was established at the Community Foundation in 2019 through a bequest from St. Lawrence County resident and retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Marjorie J. Rock, who died in February 2017 at the age of 96.
Rock grew up in St. Lawrence County and graduated from Heuvelton High School in 1937. In 1941, she graduated from the three-year nursing program at Flower Fifth Avenue School in New York City. The following year, she joined the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, serving in North Africa and Italy during World War II. She earned many honors during her Army service, including the Bronze Star and Army Commendation Medal.
In 1970, Rock retired from the U.S. Army as a lieutenant colonel and returned to St. Lawrence County, joining her mother in Ogdensburg to help with her care. Her only sibling, a brother, was killed in 1944 while piloting a P-47 Thunderbolt over Normandy.
McIntosh said that Waddington resident and Sons of American Legion Post 420 member Michael G. Badlam spearheaded the building of the expansion. Badlam's father, Hiram L. "Hy" Badlam, served from 1944 to 1946 in the China-Burma-India and Pacific theaters of operation until he was honorably discharged. He then became a life member of Post 420 and died in 2007.
"He was the ramrod," McIntosh said of Badlam. "He's very good at what he does. He's one of my 'Sons' and I was hoping he'd take it. He's been at it all summer long and probably there today getting the heat going in that addition."
Badlam, a retired Niagara Mohawk and Brookfield Power employee who learned much of his carpentry skills as a BOCES student years ago, said he was happy to tackle the project. "I go to Florida for the winters and I come back," he said. "I went to the Legion one day and Mike said, 'We want to do this project — are you interested?' I said, 'Yup — I'll tackle it but give me free range or whatever' and he goes, 'No problem.'"
Originally, the expansion was just going to be a screened-in patio. "It got going, and my vision in the long run was doing just what I did and making it come out like that," Badlam said. "Basically, it's a whole nother room."
Badlam said he was assisted by a half dozen volunteers. "Pretty much everybody who worked on it were all Sons. We've got a real good Sons of the Legion organization there in Waddington."
McIntosh said he was pleasantly surprised at some of the building deals Badlam was able to find, especially at Lowe's, for the project's eight large windows. "The next thing I know, I've got a Taj Mahal down there. It's a nice looking place."
"I did do a little bit of wheeling and dealing," Badlam said. "But the guy (at Lowe's) gave me a hell of a price on the windows. They're big windows, like 54-inch-by-54-inch. I got them for $230 each. It made a big difference in finishing the building off."
Last week, Badlam and other volunteers installed a "mini-split" HVAC unit, a ductless, heating and cooling system. "It's very energy efficient," Badlam said. "We insulated it well and the ceiling is insulated."
McIntosh said he insisted on just a couple of things for the expansion: two sets of French doors and three "big Casablanca" ceiling fans.
"It's a beautiful room," Badlam said. "We've got nice lawn furniture in there, a shuffleboard table and it just makes for a whole different atmosphere in the Legion now."
One part of the expansion has stamped concrete and the other half is smooth concrete. "We decided we wanted one part of it smooth so you could dance on it," McIntosh said. "You can't dance on that stamped stuff."
The expansion is wheelchair accessible. "Basically, the biggest thing is that I want to have my legionnaires to come in there where they can sit down in the lounge chairs out there and relax," McIntosh said. "I'll have a coffee pot out there, so they can have coffee or something with me. I want to make it nicer for my legionnaires, basically."
McIntosh said volunteers plan to make it nicer. A 6-foot-high fence is planned with a barbecue pit area, a storage shed along with a horseshoe pit and cornhole game area.
The room has already seen use. "We had a couple of parties in there," Badlam said. "On Halloween, it was about 100 kids."
'A PRIME EXAMPLE'
The American Legion was chartered by Congress in 1919 as a patriotic veterans organization. It has evolved from a group of veterans of World War I into one of the most influential nonprofit groups in the United States.
U.S. Army veteran and New York State American Legion Commander Timothy J. Collmer of Nunda, Livingston County, said that Post 420 is one example of what an American Legion can do for a community. That's one of the reasons he is confident that membership in American Legions in the state and country will grow.
"There's a prime example of stuff that a specific American Legion post is doing," Collmer said of Post 420. "We say it takes a family, and with the Sons, the Legion and the Auxiliary, it will work."
The Sons of The American Legion was created in 1932 as an organized program within The American Legion. It has members whose parents or grandparents served in the United States military and became eligible for membership in the American Legion.
The American Legion Auxiliary, established in 1919, is the world's largest women's patriotic service organization. Membership is open to female veterans and to the mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, granddaughters or great-granddaughters of American Legion members or deceased veterans who served in the armed forces during World Wars I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Grenada, Panama and/or Lebanon conflicts, and the Persian Gulf War/War on Terror.
Collmer said that membership in the American Legion statewide is growing, and that membership numbers set for this year in the state and nation are outpacing last year's goals. He said that many veterans are busy now with families, careers, college and kids.
"But once they become empty nesters and stuff like that, they will join the American Legion because they see everything we're doing," Collmer said. "Especially when their kids get older and they realize all the different programs that the American Legion does, and for kids specifically. We've had people join because their son or daughter was in Scouts or part of a baseball program and we also have oratorical contests and things like that. People see what the American Legion can do and they want to be involved."
Saturday's Veterans Day dedication of the expansion will begin at 4 p.m.
"We're going to call it the Bobby Tiernan lounge or something like that," McIntosh said. "I haven't figured out what we want to call it."
The ceremony is set for 4:30 p.m. "It's not going to be a big, long ceremony," McIntosh said. "Bobby wouldn't like that either. He was a very quiet person. He was a very nice man."
The dedication will be followed by food and entertainment.
"We're going to have music, brisket and smoked turkey," McIntosh said, adding that the Sons of the American Legion at Post 420 foot the bill for the meat. The Legion's auxiliary and community members are bringing dishes to pass. He said there will be no charge for attendees.
"Everybody is invited, but I really want all the veterans," McIntosh said. "We have a lot of veterans who don't belong to the Legions. I want to start to get them to start joining because all of our outfits are sort of going down if we don't get more interest."
THE NAMES, LEGACIES OF POST 420
—Robert C. Tiernan left Madrid-Waddington Central School at the age of 17 in 1960 and joined the Army, seeking adventure beyond his Waddington home. The paratrooper, who earned his GED in the Army, was ordered to Vietnam as part of the 2nd Infantry Division in October of 1965.
In 2015, Tiernan was interviewed by the Times for a story about the 50th anniversary of Operation Rolling Thunder, an air campaign that had in its wake a massive buildup of American troops in Vietnam. "We knew there was trouble over there," he told the Times then in a phone interview from his home in Virginia. "I don't think anybody on the way over knew what it was about."
Tiernan's family has a scrapbook documenting his service. The first page is a copy of a telegram from Maj. Gen. J.C. Lambert: "The secretary of the Army has asked me to express his deep regret that your son (Sgt.) Robert C. Tiernan died in Vietnam on 2 April 1966, a result of being hit by hostile booby trap explosion while on combat operation."
A Palm Sunday Mass in his honor was held at St. Mary's Catholic Church in Waddington on Oak Street, one block away from Post 420.
But the telegram that said the young soldier was dead was wrong. Five days later, Robert's mother received a phone call, on Good Friday. It was Sgt. Tiernan's first wife, Barbara, calling from her home in Virginia, informing her that Robert was alive.
Tiernan had stepped on a land mine and was seriously wounded, but he survived. According to Times archives, the Army's erroneous account of his death happened when the explosion blew his pants off.
"His billfold and all of his identification were in the pockets of his pants, making it difficult for the Army casualty branch to make an immediate and accurate identification," the Times reported.
Tiernan spent nearly three years in Army hospitals. He left the Army in 1969 but said he was disappointed he couldn't put in 20 years, as he wanted to. He said the Army told him he couldn't pass its physical. But he said he spent nearly 25 years as a painter, which also involved remodeling homes and putting up wallboard.
"I've had 43 operations since," he said in 2015. "I don't want to say much more because I don't want to get upset. I ain't the only one who went through hell. I was one of the lucky ones who came home."
—Pvt. Henry G. Champion, 21, was killed in October 1918 in France while fighting with Commander John J. Pershing's Army. He was the son of Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Champion of the village and was a farmhand before joining the Army.
On Oct. 30, 1918, the Times reprinted a letter that Pvt. John A. Brander, Ogdensburg, sent to his family in which he described the horror of war and alluded to the death of "comrade Henry Champion."
"Three men were killed yesterday and one wounded," Brander wrote. "Those big shells are awful. Our sergeant broke down yesterday and had to go to the hospital, also three of our men, but two of them have come back. They said the other acted queerly, as if he would go insane. It is worse than hell, I believe. Don't know when it will be over, but it can't end too quickly to suit me or anybody else. We are about 20 miles from Metz. Our big guns are shelling it now."
—Sgt. Ross T. Hobkirk was killed in action on Sept. 13, 1918. Reports of his death were sketchy at first and relatives were hopeful that a mistake had been made. But four months later, his sister, Mrs. Arthur A. Johnson of Melrose, Massachusetts, received a letter from the chaplain of the Army's 32nd Infantry giving particulars on the death of her brother. He was killed near Pont-à-Mousson, France. The Times in January of 1919 reprinted the letter he wrote to Johnson.
"Our division met severe resistance the second day," Chaplain S.W. Salisbury wrote. "The Germans tried to cut our regiment off and it was while fighting off superior numbers for the time being that the sergeant was wounded and killed. ... By the records of the regiment he was officially reported as killed and I believe you can rest assured that this is the truth."
Salisbury continued, "All of us who remain regret that our friends have fallen but we are proud of the honor of having lived and fought with them. You may well be proud of your brother for all time."
In April 1920, a bronze tablet in honor of Hobkirk was unveiled at Scotch Presbyterian Church, Chipman, of which he was a member. The pastor, Rev. James T. Robertson, then preached a sermon, and called it, "Loyalty."