By Judy O’Gorman Alvarez
MIDDLETOWN – At a time when veterans may feel they’re being forgotten, three sisters of a beloved and heroic brother are making certain that veterans – of all U.S. wars – are remembered.
“What they fought for and what we have to help (people) remember is that freedom costs something,” said Anita Keyser, who along with her sisters, Verna Mauro and Edith T. Nowels, are honoring their brother who died in combat in World War II and veterans everywhere this Memorial Day. “Servicemen today, they have to be supported and remembered.”
Thorne Middle School, which was named after the women’s older brother, Cpl. Horace “Bud” Thorne, will host a Middletown Military Shout Out on Saturday, May 24. Thorne was a young Middletown man who died in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge. The school’s event will feature a wreath-laying ceremony, invited guests and a U.S.O. show featuring students from the three Middletown middle schools.
Thorne was honored by Congress with the Medal of Honor for actions he took during the battle. Years later, with the help and determination of veterans and Thorne’s family, the middle school was named in his honor. The school, across the street from the farm where Thorne and his eight siblings grew up, was the same location where Thorne graduated. “It was an incredible honor,” Keyser said.
Thorne Middle School has a Wall of Honor showcasing Thorne’s heroism with photos and his medals, which his family donated to the school and its students. The hope, Keyser said, is that “they would carry on the legacy and keep it alive so that every student that came from the school would learn about him and grow up and become a good citizen.
“The more education they get about the war and understand it and have more knowledge, it’ll increase their pride and patriotism,” she said.
After graduating from high school, Thorne moved to New York City where he lived with their grandmother and worked for Home Insurance Co. with plans to go on to college. He enlisted in the Army in 1941. He met and married his wife, Lea, just a few months before he was killed. His sisters didn’t meet Lea until after their brother was killed.
Keyser tells of one of the last letters Thorne wrote to the family, after Keyser was married and her daughter was born. “He wrote home and said he was looking forward to doing that in his life,” she said. “I think sadly that my husband, who was in the Army (at the same time), never met my brother. We mourn him. Every time there’s a holiday, I miss him. My boys, when they grew up, they never knew him.”
According to Keyser, it was their brother’s receiving the Medal of Honor posthumously that spurred the sisters to action to preserve his – and other soldiers’ – memory.
“I realized as we lay a wreath,” Keyser said, “we can’t waste our suffering like this. We need to be out there and doing something.”
The sisters joined forces with VFW 2170 in Port Monmouth, and veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Together they have lobbied for memorials, World War II education and various ways to keep veterans in the minds of Americans.
Once when they learned a school in Toms River was planning to discontinue its Veterans Day’s event and rename the celebration, the sisters went to talk to town officials.
“They had a meeting and we gave our viewpoint: How dare they give up Veterans Day!” Keyser said. “Because of Edith’s enthusiasm, they changed it!”
Preserving her brother’s memory – and all the others who fought in the war – is what motivates Nowels. “The principles that they died for and the things he believed in and all the reasons he wanted to get back home,” as well as “what he had to deal with on the battlefield” are all lessons generations should learn.
Among her many roles, Nowels serves on the board for Wreaths Across America, a national organization that coordinates wreath-laying ceremonies at veterans’ cemeteries.
She proudly noted she is in the “Congressional Record for pushing for the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery.”
She also was instrumental in a dispute over a Christmas tree that remained lit year-round, displayed in Bar Harbor, Maine.
“It’s for the Christmas they never had in ’44,” Nowels said. “For the boys on the battlefield.
“After two years, when the lease was up, the town decided they didn’t want it,” she said. They said “it was tacky, and we got a lot of support from all over the country.”
After an arduous fight, “we actually moved the tree to Columbia Falls, Maine, and the purpose was to never let the lights out.” The tree was moved – on a truck with a generator – 62 miles north to its new home –and not one light went out, she said.
Although the momentum may have started with their love for their brother, the sisters insist it’s not just about him.
“It’s about the school that is named for Buddy in his honor,” Nowels said.
“What’s important is that these young students in the school need to know” about Cpl. Thorne, about the Battle of the Bulge and about World War II.
In 2011 when the Battle of the Bulge Monument, previously housed at Fort Monmouth, was relocated to Thorne Middle School, Nowels managed to gather 96 survivors of the battle for the commemoration. “Those men walked in with canes, in wheelchairs, together with their buddies, and the students were in awe of these men. It was unbelievable.”
Nowels has been busy preserving monuments, searching for corporate sponsors and keeping veterans connected with one another through reunions and her monthly newsletter through which veterans share their latest news. It’s “an attempt to reach out with a hug and hello” to men who may be “struggling with their last battle,” she said.
Although sometimes frustrated, she is not deterred by “mean-spirited people” who turn down her ideas. She would like to see a toll-free phone line for veterans across the country to locate and call an old comrade. According to Nowels, some people feel it was too much energy and funds to put into a project for an aging market group.
She pointed out that there was so much publicity – deservedly so – when Frank Buckles, the last surviving World War I veteran died, but she thought he should’ve been honored more when he was alive.
“We still have survivors now and feel we should be honoring and recognizing them right now,” she said.
“We have worked to honor the dead, and we have to help do what we can for the living,” she said. “We have a whole new family of brothers – and women, of course – to honor.”