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WWII veteran finds myriad ways to honor others who served

Boynton Beach, Fla. Veterans Memorial Park. (Google Maps/Released)

Tom Kaiser can reel off endless stories about a little memorial park off Federal Highway.

The decorated World War II veteran, 91, knows the Boynton Beach Veterans Memorial Park like the back of his hand. Kaiser, the park’s chair, has an explanation for each bench, plaque, slab. And he can tick off details of the Battle of the BulgePearl Harbor and Operation Desert Storm with minimal effort.

The dedication of military folks, especially the fallen, sticks with him.

At the Boynton Beach park, Kaiser helped erect 24 granite memorials, one 20-ton monument and 12 benches, including one for his older brother, Robert, stamped with his black-and-white oval headshot.

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Other monuments pay homage to black veterans, Gold Star mothers, the four “Immortal Chaplains,” teams of soldiers, and even the Purple Heart Medal.

That one’s Kaiser’s “good luck charm,” he said, but he adores them all and still visits often.

“They’re all my babies,” he said.

Kaiser signed up for the Navy the day he turned 17. Doors opened at 8 a.m. but he was there at 7 a.m., first in line. Of his service, he said he almost hit a mine outside of Hiroshima, but aside from that, he “got very lucky.”

Kaiser shifted focus away from military matters after he returned, concentrating on work as a civilian and raising his family, his wife Jean by his side. He eventually became involved with veterans’ groups.

He’s a member of Veterans of Foreign Wars 5335 and is an honorary veteran of the Korean War and the Battle of the Bulge as well as the WWII submarine veterans. Boynton Beach’s American Legion 164, what Kaiser calls his “home” for the last 20 years, named its meeting room after him May 13.

Kaiser also is a recipient of a French Legion of Honor Medal.

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Kaiser said one of his brothers, Navy man Robert Kaiser, influenced him.

Robert Kaiser was 21 when his submarine, Trout, went missing in February 1944, Tom Kaiser said.

Tom Kaiser knows his older brother’s submarine was 250 miles northeast of an island in the Philippines and that it was in 35,000-foot deep water when it went down.

Beyond that, he has nothing.

“It’s always, how did he die,” Kaiser said. “There’s no way out of that place.”

Kaiser said he remembers his brother everywhere and even at 91, still makes every effort to honor veterans.

This push to honor vets includes memorial projects from Boynton Beach to New York to Australia, submarine monuments, and POW/MIA signs that stripe highways. His next goal is a memorial in Normandy.

Kaiser also tries to help veterans who may not have gotten their merit medals to do so and to date has helped about 1,000 vets get the honor they were due.

Stanley Gavlick, a Korean War veteran who Kaiser calls his right-hand man, said Kaiser’s work on behalf of fellow veterans “is his life.”

He’s always had a sharp work ethic, said Kaiser’s daughter, Cathy Weil, adding that her father has always been “tireless,” from her upbringing to his passion for honoring vets.

Debbie Kaiser, Tom Kaiser’s other daughter, said her father can never seem to know enough or learn enough about history, particularly the war and the disappearance of his brother’s submarine.

Every year for Christmas Eve, she said, she searches for books that could provide clues to the sub’s fate.

“He just really wants to know and understand,” Debbie Kaiser said, of her father’s quest for knowledge.

She emphasized her father “wants to make sure that every veteran gets recognized.”

On Friday, Kaiser joined volunteers he and Gavlick had organized to place American flags over veterans’ graves in an annual ritual.

Even after decades of work and a still inexhaustible list of tasks, Kaiser said he feels “like a million bucks.”

Naomi Bash, a friend of Kaiser’s, likened him to the Energizer Bunny.

He’s not ready to end his work just yet.

Leaning back on one of the granite benches in the Boynton park, Kaiser considered his legacy and how he hopes it’ll take shape.

It already has. It is this park.

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© 2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.