May 12, 2014 By Christian Murray
The $2.2 million upgrade to Thomas P. Noonan Playground began late last month but elected officials held a groundbreaking ceremony Friday to celebrate the revamp–which will feature a new children’s play area as well as a commemorative plaque in honor of those Sunnyside residents who died while serving in Vietnam.
While dozens of students from PS 199 turned out in good spirit, many of Sunnyside’s aging veterans—accompanied by their family and friends—came out to pay homage to those who died in Vietnam even though the memorial/plaque is a year from completion.
The Parks Department has started work on the year-long project, which will result in the construction of a new rainbow sprinkler system—as well as the addition of a new play area, fencing and shrubbery. The basketball and handball courts will be resurfaced, which will only take two months to complete, so work will begin on that section of the park at the end of summer.
The new park, however, will feature a flagpole, with a granite memorial dedicated to Lance Corporal Thomas P. Noonan as well as a plaque to honor four other servicemen who died from this neighborhood while serving the nation in Vietnam.
“This has been a long time coming,” said Mike Smith, a Vietnam vet who is the head of VFW 2813, which is located on 43rd Street in Sunnyside. “It is a great honor [to Noonan] who was known throughout the community.”
Mark Wilensky, a life-long resident, said two of the men who will be honored were childhood friends of his that he played with at the very same park where the plaque will be. “We played basketball together at St. Raphaels and hung out at PS 199 when we were kids.”
Wilensky said he was good friends with Thomas John Reilly, who lived on 43rd Street (by White Castle), before being shot down in a helicopter just two weeks into his tour, and Donald Breuer, who went missing in action.
Breuer, who grew up on the corner of 40th Street and 50th Avenue, had two boys when he died. He had a 3-year-old and a 3-month-old.
Breuer’s brother and sister attended the groundbreaking. His sister, Noreen, said that Breuer had returned back to New York shortly after his second son was born and was looking forward to returning to family life when his tour was done. He had less than 100 days to go before he went missing.
Wilensky said he was disappointed that it took 40 years for these men to be honored—although he thanked Community Board 2 chairman Joe Conley, a veteran himself, for helping make sure that all the residents from this neighborhood who died serving in Vietnam were honored.
“We will be honoring four local residents who grew up in Sunnyside and Woodside and through this rededication their memories will live on,” Conley said.
Conley said that he had been researching who came from Sunnyside and died in Vietnam since 2011, when he discovered that there wasn’t a memorial honoring the fallen from this neighborhood. He said that he had been pushing for a memorial or plaque since then and when he heard that Noonan Playground was being upgraded he saw it was a perfect opportunity to talk to Councilman Jimmy Van Bramer and the Parks Department about getting it done.
At the groundbreaking, Conley spoke about Edward Corcoran, who lived on 44th Street, before dying in Vietnam.
Conley said Corcoran worked at Lindy’s Men Shop, a clothing store located on Greenpoint Avenue at the time, before he was drafted in October 1970. He was killed six months later.
Corcoran, Conley said, had planned to open a clothing store in the area when he returned—but his dreams were dashed.
James Joseph Owens is the fourth Sunnyside resident who died in Vietnam who will be honored on the plaque. More names might be added.
Meanwhile, the story of Lance Corporal Thomas Noonan (1943-1969) will be told on a granite slab at the foot of the flagpole. Noonan, who served as a mortar man and later as a rifleman in the Third Marine Division, was killed in action while attempting to rescue wounded members of his company and was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Van Bramer said: “Noonan Playground is an important community hub for our seniors, families and local children.”
“The renovations that begin today will expand the popular playground…and forever commemorate the sacrifices our local veterans made for this great nation.”