October 28, 2021

Memorial Day: Before they were soldiers, they were kids

James Byrnes stands by the monuments outside the Cortland Veterans of Foreign Wars to soldiers killed in war. One of the names is William Byrnes, James' brother, who was killed in Vietnam

Two monuments sit outside the Veterans of Foreign Wars post on Main Street in Cortland. Column upon column of names from World War II, Korea and Vietnam. More monuments rest in Courthouse Park a block away, with names from World War I, the Civil War and more.

Names of men and women who served — and never came home.

Around 8.7 million Americans served in Vietnam, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; 58,220 of them died there, according to the National Archives. Another 153,000 were wounded. U.S. Census data show 850,000 Vietnam veterans remain in America, about 1,100 in Cortland County.

On one of the monuments, the one closest to the front door of the VFW, lies a plaque with 20 names of men who died in Vietnam.

One of those names is William Byrnes.

Brothers in arms

James and Ralph “Billy” Byrnes, brothers from Cincinnatus, shared a passion for fast cars. James owned a 1965 GTO convertible. Billy owned a 1966 Ford Fairline GT. However, Billy would steal James’ car and come to Cortland.

“He’d drag race down Main Street,” James Byrnes said.

Once, after his brother had raced his car down Main Street, James Byrnes recalled coming to Cortland and being followed by the police. Curious, the man stopped his car and asked why the officer was tailing him. James Byrnes was told his car was spotted drag racing in the city and the police just wanted to see what he was up to.

Besides their love of fast cars, the brothers both served in the U.S. Army — James Byrnes between 1963 and 1966 with time in Korea. “That’s why he (Ralph) joined the Army, to be with me,” James Byrnes said.

Ralph Byrnes enlisted in 1964 and volunteered to go to Korea. However, one month after arriving to be with his brother, James was sent home.

Ralph asked him to stay, but James had already spent 13 months in country.

When James Byrnes came home he was stationed at Fort Carson in Colorado, a sergeant with the 10th Infantry Division. James Byrnes’ division was then scheduled to meet with the 5th Infantry Division at Fort Riley in Kansas and head to Vietnam. However, James was discharged in 1966.

In 1968, James Byrnes was working when he received a telegram from his parents. Ralph, in the middle of his third yearlong tour in Vietnam, had been wounded in Bien Hoa and evacuated to a hospital in Japan. “They sent me a telegram telling me he’d passed,” James Byrnes said.

For years, James Byrnes and his wife have attended Memorial Day services at the Cortland VFW. They don’t see a name; they see a brash young man with a fondness for fast cars and adrenalin.

The couple has raised four boys in the 49 years of their marriage. “All (boys) know about their uncle,” James Byrnes said.

Growing up together

Toni Rydzyc spent the summers of her childhood playing in the streets of Cortland with her second cousin, William Phelps.

“We played together all the time,” Rydzyc said Wednesday.

The two were the same age, went to the same school and lived across the street from each other. They were more siblings than cousins.

She remembers that winter day when the two were digging in the snow, building seats. Phelps accidentally struck Rydzyc in the nose. “I went running in the house screaming and crying,” she said.

Phelps got in trouble.

They went tobogganing down Pendleton Hill and later, even attended SUNY Cortland together.

Phelps majored in physics. He wanted to be an astronaut and thought the Air Force would be his best route into space, Rydzyc said.

While in the Air Force, Phelps was a navigator. “He said flying a plane was like flying a bus in the sky,” Rydzyc said.

Veronica Martin, another second cousin of Phelps, said she remembered when Phelps was born. “I remember when Billy was born,” she said. “My mother and I went to see his mother.”

In 1965, Martin gave birth to twins, the first in the family, she said. Two years later her cousin came home on leave to visit. “He just wanted to see the boys,” Martin said. “He was just fascinated.”

That was the last time Martin saw Phelps.

Phelps, a captain, was a pilot in the Air Force’s 366th Tactical Fighter Wing during the Vietnam War. His F-4 Phantom fighter-bomber was believed to have been shot down over the forests of Laos during a mission in 1971.

Neither his plane nor his remains were ever recovered.

The funeral came 45 years later, in 2016.

The memories remain, Rydzyc said, never to be forgotten. “Just playing around Garfield Street,” she said. “Every day all summer long.”