The Tribute to a Little-Known Soldier
A small plaque to a young veteran in a New York park tells a very American story of sacrifice.
My neighborhood in upper Manhattan surrounds a small, sweet park—Bennett Park, it’s called—that marks the highest natural point in New York City. Long ago, it was the site of Fort Washington, which the Continental Army built in the summer of 1776 only to have it captured by the British until the end of the Revolutionary War. Today, the fort’s walls are partially outlined by cobblestones, and dogs frolic around a centuries-old cannon.
In 1996 the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation added another war memorial in Bennett Park, this one dedicated to the memory of a man—a kid, really—who had grown up in the neighborhood and had been killed during World War II. His name was Emilio Barbosa. The inscription said that he was a native of Nicaragua who had lived on Pinehurst Avenue, a street that borders the west side of the park. At 17 he joined the Marines and spent the next two years manning a 20mm gun turret on the USS Nevada, fighting first at Normandy Beach and then in the Pacific theater. He died at the age of 19, when a Japanese kamikaze pilot flew into the Nevada as she bombarded Okinawa.
Barbosa’s small plaque, low to the ground and under a tree, is easy to miss. But I’ve found myself lingering over it from time to time, wondering about the man it honors—imagining, for instance, how terrifying it must have been as that Japanese plane closed in on him. My father also served in the Pacific, and decades later, when he could finally bring himself to talk about it, he said that the experience of watching a kamikaze pilot dive toward his ship had instilled in him a profound belief in God.
I’ve visited the Normandy American Cemetery in France and the Long Island National Cemetery, where the endless rows of unadorned white gravestones can be overwhelming—and can raise those same kinds of questions. How had these men lived? How did they die? What might they have done with their lives if they had survived the horrors of war?
Maybe it’s because Emilio Barbosa isn’t among the tens of thousands of soldiers buried in one of those massive national cemeteries, with nothing but a name on a gravestone—maybe it’s because his little memorial offers such a poignant outline of one soldier’s short life—that I felt I wanted to know more. And in learning more, I thought that on this Veterans Day, we might better appreciate the sacrifice he—and all the other soldiers who died in America’s wars—made for their country.
One thing I’d always wondered is when Emilio came to America. None of his descendants I spoke to knew the precise date, but the internet did—January 1929, when he was three years old. He arrived in New York from Managua with his parents and two older brothers. Why had the Barbosas immigrated? Emilio’s descendants definitely knew the answer to that: his father Jose, a prominent journalist, was fleeing the wrath of Anastasio Somoza, about whom he’d written critically. Somoza wasn’t yet Nicaragua’s dictator, but he had already amassed power and was using it to crush critics.
“He had been an intellectual in Nicaragua,” Jose’s great-granddaughter Magdalena told me about her ancestor. “Once he got here, though, he was a longshoreman.” This, of course, is the classic immigrant’s tale: you sacrifice so that your children can have a better life in America. And they did, moving eventually to a large apartment on Pinehurst Avenue in Washington Heights, where Emilio and his two older brothers went to public school, listened to pop songs on the radio, played baseball—and spoke mostly English to each other. Like many immigrants, their most fervent desire was to join the melting pot, to be as American as they could possibly be. Jose became known as Joseph. One by one, they gained their citizenship. And when the U.S. entered World War II, Jose’s three boys didn’t wait to be drafted; they immediately signed up. Joseph Jr., the oldest, joined the Army; Benjamin, one year younger, chose the Navy; and Emilio enlisted in the Marines.
Emilio was described to me as a happy-go-lucky kid who was a superb baseball player, far better than his older brothers, whom he worshipped, and who looked after him as they grew up. They tried to talk him out of enlisting—he had a year to go before he was eligible for the draft—but he wouldn’t listen. If his big brothers were going to fight for their adopted country, then so was he.
The impression I got talking to Emilio’s two nephews, named Emil and Benjamin Jr., and Emil’s daughter Magdalena, is that the youngest of the Barbosa boys saw by far the most combat. “My father didn’t see a lot of fighting,” said Emil of his father Joseph Jr. Once, when Joseph Jr. confronted a German soldier, “they looked at each other and decided not to shoot at each other.”
Benjamin Sr. was a corpsman who took a bullet in Guam while trying to get a badly injured soldier to safety. As he would later tell the story, at a bar one evening during his recovery, the nurse he was with kept staring at a Marine who was with a group of soldiers. When he finally looked up to see who the Marine was, he realized it was his brother Emilio. They took advantage of the situation to have their photograph taken together. It was also the last time Benjamin saw his younger brother.
The USS Nevada, the battleship Emilio was assigned to, was so old she had fought in World War I. She had been damaged and repaired after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and was serving as a convoy ship, protecting more modern vessels.
But that changed with the Normandy invasion. Positioned in the English Channel, she bombarded German positions for days before heading to the Pacific, where she shelled Japanese defenses in advance of the Allies’ amphibious assault at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The Japanese countered with kamikaze attacks, one of which killed 11 men. Emilio was among them.
The 11, plus the Japanese pilot, were buried at sea. Five months later, Japan surrendered.
The Barbosas were a close family—many of them living at one time or another at 90 Pinehurst—and Emilio was not forgotten. Joseph Jr.’s son Emil told me he was named after his uncle. Benjamin Jr. recalled that “Memorial Day was a very sad day for us. It wasn’t barbecues and parties. It was remembering Emilio.”
Emil believes that his father Joseph Jr. always felt some residual guilt that his youngest brother had followed him into the war—and that he wasn’t able to say goodbye. “As he got older, he got more sentimental,” says Emil. “And he decided he wanted to do something for Emilio.”
Joseph Jr. worked as a dental technician after the war. By the mid-1990s he was retired, and with time on his hands, he began lobbying the parks department for a monument for Emilio in Bennett Park, so close to where he’d grown up. His family thought it was a fool’s errand, but he could not be dissuaded, even as one year after another passed, and still no memorial.
“Sometimes his temper got the best of him,” says Emil. “He thought the city was dragging its feet.”
But to the astonishment of all but Joseph Jr., after four years, the city finally agreed. Emil helped his father write the inscription, and in the summer of 1996, a small ceremony was held. The parks commissioner attended, as did a contingent of Marines, a marching band from the local Catholic school, and various Barbosas. Magdalena, 44, then a teenager, remembers being impressed by the spectacle.
“We never thought it was going to happen,” she says with a laugh.
Although Joseph Jr. and his brother Benjamin died years ago, Emilio’s candle has never been extinguished. A few years ago, his grandnephew Jason Barbosa wrote on the website findagrave.com that Emilio was the reason he joined the Marines.
“He was [a] hero to me my whole life,” he wrote. “Semper Fi to all that shall read this.”
And Emil told me that his daughter Alexandra, the current resident of the apartment on 90 Pinehurst, usually places flowers over Emilio’s plaque on Veterans Day.
This year, I may do the same.