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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, January 27, 2011

POW’s legacy celebrated as Old Glory gets new face

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — The hands that created Altamont’s most famous flag have long been stilled by death. But lively hands have now made a red, white, and blue cover to protect the flag for generations to come.

Millard Orsini — one of seven brothers — left Altamont to fight in World War II. As a Japanese prisoner of war, he risked his life to create an American flag out of whatever scraps he could steal from his captors. Orsini’s flag now hangs in Cindy Pollard’s café on Altamont’s Main Street.

Pollard has protected his legacy and that of other soldiers in an eatery that serves as Altamont’s living room and also acts like a museum where students visit with veterans to learn about past wars. She has decorated her café with World War II memorabilia, including pictures of local soldiers, recreating the atmosphere of her mother’s kitchen.

“It’s like I’m the keeper of their stories,” Pollard said. “They’re important, each and every one of them…For the ground soldiers in the Pacific, it was kill or be killed. They saw such horror, they can’t talk about it…If they do, they’re back there. They smell the smells and have weeks of bad dreams.”

Pollard told Millard Orsini’s story last week to a packed house that included the Altamont Seniors, the village’s mayor and archivist, and the daughters and granddaughter of Millard Orsini.

The tale unfolded this way:

The attack on Pearl Harbor launched the Japanese invasion of the Philippines. After the Japanese won a three-month battle at Bataan in 1942, they marched over 70,000 prisoners for 60 miles in what became known as the Bataan Death March. Thousands died in what was later accounted as a Japanese war crime because of the brutal and murderous treatment of the prisoners.

Millard Orsini was one of those prisoners. He survived the march and became a slave laborer for 39 months.

“It took him three years to make a flag out of bits and pieces of anything he could steal from his captors,” Pollard told the crowd. “Had he been detected, he would have been executed. The day he was liberated, he ran out with the flag…

“He didn’t speak about it or the horrors of the war with his family,” she concluded. “Maybe at the VFW, he’d have a beer with his buddies and talk about it.”

More than a decade ago, a commander at Altamont’s Veterans of Foreign Wars Post went to his widow, Kay Orsini, and asked about the flag. “It looked like a piece of dried up old oil cloth,” said Pollard. “You couldn’t touch the flag without it flaking.” The flag was painstakingly restored by the Williamstown Art Conservation Center in Massachusetts and now hangs in the Home Front Café.

The village archivist, Marijo Dougherty, brought a state conservator to see the flag, to make sure it was properly protected, said Pollard. The conclusion was that the flag was framed properly but was getting too much light, she said.

Quilters to the rescue

Altamont’s Train Station Quilters agreed to fashion an appropriate cover for the flag. “The quilters always say yes,” Dougherty told the crowd as they ate a luncheon of chicken and biscuits.

The village archives are currently focusing on military history from the Revolutionary War to the present, from an Altamont perspective, Dougherty said. “History is a living organism and we want to keep it going…It stops right now in the 1940s in Altamont,” she said.

Ruth Dickinson, who founded the Train Station Quilters, said she first thought they should make a flag “but we didn’t want to take away from his flag.”

So, using a Friendship Star pattern, 20 blocks were created from red, white, and blue scrap materials that the quilters had on hand. This was to honor Orsini’s efforts, making his flag from what he could scavenge.

The border, donated by Linda Chaffee, has the words of The Declaration of Independence.

The other quilters who contributed to the project are: Lois Ginsburg, Marge Jordan, Lida Kim, Cathy Maikoff, Judy Newcomb, Michelle Paulsen, Irene Peck, Ruth Reilly, Pat Spohr, and Donna Trautwein-Welsh.

The group, which originated when Judith Wines, director of the Altamont Free Library, asked Dickinson to teach a quilting class in 2005, now numbers 29 and welcomes new members from Guilderland. The quilters meet every Tuesday from 10 a.m. till noon at the village hall. “We love new members,” said Dickinson. “They can just drop in. We get excited when they do.”

 New members needn’t be experienced quilters; Dickinson is a good teacher. The quilters have made quilts for babies with AIDS, for Altamont Community Tradition, for the Altamont Free Library, for women’s shelters, for ministers to take to the handicapped, and for Community Caregivers.

Maikoff, who is known for her exquisite appliqué, loves birds and appliquéd some to a recent quilting project for the Community Caregivers. Now 84, she learned to embroider as a small child from her mother.

“My parents came from the Ukraine where they do fantastic embroidery,” she said. Maikoff has linen table runners, pillow tops, and bedspreads that have been handed down in her family. “To me, they should be in a museum,” she said.

Keeping dreams alive

Orsini’s flag has inspired poetry as well as passion.

Wayne Clarke, who collects soldiers’ stories and has published a book called Soldier Ballads and other Tales, read a poem he wrote about Orsini’s flag. “His country called and Millard went. Our country was at war. He went to many places he hadn’t seen before,” read Clarke from his book.

His poem described what Orsini’s secret project must have meant to his fellow prisoners of war: “When they gazed upon his flag, their dreams were kept alive.”

“I love it because it’s the one thing everyone sees,” Pollard concluded. “It’s been an inspiration to the children,” she said of the students who visit the Home Front Café. “Long after we are gone, it will remain an inspiration…He never gave up on his country,” she said of Orsini.

At the end of the meal, as Pollard’s guests ate bowls of ice cream, before being serenaded by the Mulligan sisters and their little brother, Charlie, Orsini’s daughter told the crowd, “My dad went through a lot but he never let his children know. He wanted us to be happy. He loved Altamont and he’d want his flag to stay here.”

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