NAUGATUCK — Every year before Veterans Day and Memorial Day twin brothers Bill and Manny Matos can be found placing new flags on the graves of veterans in St. James Cemetery on Cross Street.
“I enjoy doing it. It is just something I do,” Bill Matos said.
The upkeep of the flags, which the 84-year-old brothers and veterans have been doing for more than three decades, is just one way they have served their community and country.
The brothers have lived in Naugatuck since they were 3 years old and both joined the military in 1951.
Bill Matos joined the U.S. Air Force in July 1951, shortly after he graduated high school, while the Korean War was in full swing.
“We went in because the war was on and we wanted to do something for the country,” Bill Matos said.
Manny Matos joined a few months later in October 1951. He chose the Air Force because it was where his brother was serving.
“I was getting ready to be drafted and Bill came and told me ‘Manny, the Air Force is beautiful. If you are going to come in, join the Air Force.’ I am glad I did because I had some nice times there,” Manny Matos said.
While they were in the same branch of the military, their duties took them in different directions. Bill Matos worked as a mechanic, working on planes like the Boeing B-47. Manny Matos worked in personnel, doing jobs such as payroll.
However, in 1952, the brothers both found themselves stationed at the Rapid City Army Air Base, which is now known as the Ellsworth Air Force Base, in South Dakota, and playing on the base’s softball team.
“We went to Denver to play in a tournament. We were in the finals of the Armed Forces Softball Tournament. We got beat 1-0 by a team from Texas,” Manny Matos said.
By the end of 1952 Manny Matos took up a position as a personal secretary to a colonel at a post in England.
“I had a chance to go to England. So I said, ‘Well Bill, I’m leaving you,’ Manny Matos said.
Manny Matos spent the next 20 months in Europe, traveling wherever the colonel went. This afforded him the opportunity to visit relatives in Lisbon, Portugal, where his father was from, Manny Matos said.
After serving four years, Bill and Manny Matos left the Air Force in July 1955 and September 1955 respectively. At the time they each held the rank of Airman First Class.
They were both told that they would be promoted to the rank of staff sergeant, if they reenlisted, but neither brother took the offer.
“They give you another stripe if you re-up, but that wasn’t for me,” Manny Matos said.
Once out of the Air Force, Bill Matos took a job loading trucks at the Uniroyal warehouse. After 30 years, he started working as a custodian at City Hill Middle School. He retired after 15 years as head custodian.
Manny Matos chose to see the country after he got out of the Air Force.
“When I got out I decided I was going to travel through the United States. I did that until I had enough and I came back here and went to work,” Manny Matos said.
He worked as a maintenance man for Uniroyal for more than 38 years before retiring.
The brothers began helping place flags on graves 32 years ago at the request of Franklin Johnson, Sr., a veteran.
They started at Grove Street Cemetery but took over at the St. James Cemetery when the Naugatuck Veterans of Foreign Wars Crusader Post 1946 was unable to continue its work at that cemetery.
Since he was familiar with the school, Bill Matos invited students from City Hill Middle School to come and assist in placing the flags. Twice a year roughly two dozen students show up to assist the Matos brothers.
Bill Matos said it’s important to remember those who served their country.
“When I go down and put flags up, I see guys I graduated with and people I know. We’ve got an uncle buried down there,” Bill Matos said. “Sooner or later they will be putting it on mine.”
Naugatuck Veterans Council Chairman John DeBisschop said the brothers embody what it means to be a veteran and serve the community.
“Bill and Manny Matos are perfect examples of the Naugatuck veterans community. They continue to serve for ‘God and country.’ Their work replacing veterans’ grave marker flags at St. James Cemetery ensures that Naugatuck never forgets the service and sacrifice of those veterans who are interred therein,” DeBisschop said.
By including students from City Hill Middle School, DeBisschop said the Matos brothers are helping teach an important lesson to the next generation.
“They are teaching them the patriotism that it will take to ensure that Naugatuck continues to honor our veterans in this manner long after any of us current veterans are physically able to do so,” DeBisschop said.
The brothers worry about who will continue the tradition after they can no longer place the flags. However, they both said they will continue to do it themselves as long as they can.
“My daughter asks who is going to be doing it after you go. I really don’t know. But I am going to keep doing it,” Manny Matos said. “I enjoy it. I look forward to going down there twice a year.”