Memorial Day Takes on New Tack as City Looks to ‘Never Forget’: Fallen Soldier of Back Bay Finally Gets Hero Square

The word ‘never’ cannot be overlooked when veterans advocates talk about the phrase ‘Never Forget,’ and despite the restrictions from COVID-19 this Memorial Day, Veterans Commissioner Rob Santiago said they will do everything they can to remember fallen veterans.

Memorial Day exercises have been postponed and/or cancelled all across the city, but Commissioner Santiago said they will be honoring fallen soldiers this Memorial Day in unique and different ways.

“One thing that is important is Memorial Day is still going on,” he said. “We will still honor and remember our fallen veterans, but we will do it in a more contemplative way.”

Already, local veterans posts and volunteers have assisted the City in placing flags on 52,000 graves of veterans in Boston, and they have decorated the 1,200 Hero Squares that lie all over the city.

Private First Class John DeFreytas lived on St. Botolph St. A new Hero Square was placed there last fall, but COVID-19 restrictions have made it impossible to have a ceremony.

In groups of 10 or less, they have gone out to make sure all of that work gets done as soon as possible.

“We have to go out in groups of 10 or less,” he said. “It’s going to take a little longer to decorate this year, but it looks like it will all be done by Memorial Day.”

One Hero Square in the Back Bay/St. Botolph area that will get its first celebration and decoration this year will be for John F. DeFreytas.

Commissioner Santiago said the family called his office late last year looking for information on DeFreytas, as they lived in Maryland and could not get up to Boston. Santiago said he learned that there was no Hero Square for DeFreytas, and he moved to get one commissioned at the corner of St. Botolph and Albemarle Street.

DeFreytas, who was born in 1916, lived at 198 St. Botolph Street before joining the Army in World War II, serving as a Private 1st Class in the 10th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division and the 28th Cavalry Recon Squadron.

Santiago said DeFreytas and his squadron between Sept. 11 and 28, 1944, were looking for a way to cross the Moselle River in France. In the heat of battle, they located a spot that was unguarded and were able to cross. The German Army quickly realized this, and mounted a counter-attack. Eventually, the Americans received backup from a tank battalion and forced the Germans to retreat. However, during the fierce fighting, DeFreytas was killed on Sept. 12 – likely run over by a tank after being injured.

That Hero Square was to be dedicated last fall, but bad weather cancelled it, and now COVID-19 restrictions have also stopped any gathering to celebrate his heroism.

That said, he will be remembered by City leaders this Memorial Day.

The main celebration, Santiago said, would be the making of a video called ‘An American Quilt of Remembrance’ that will premiere on Memorial Day and will tell stories like that of DeFreytas.

“There will be videos, pictures and music woven together in a very patchwork fashion,” he said. “It will be a quilt dedicated to the many who gave their last full measure of life to make preserve freedom in this country for others.”

Already, City Hall has been lit red, white and blue this week to commemorate the holiday, and on May 24, they will light up City Hall and the Zakim Bridge gold in honor of the Gold Star Families that lost loved ones.

This Memorial Day might be different, but Santiago said it shouldn’t be any less meaningful just because folks cannot gather in one spot.

“These men and women went to war willingly and knew they may not come back, and many of them did not come back,” he said. “We want to continue this year to take the time to show their bravery and valor.”

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