WELLSVILLE - It was a perfect spring afternoon on Friday when family and community members came together at the Wellsville Honor Roll on state Route 45 to officially designate a portion of that road as the Corp. Ernest G. Madden Memorial Highway.
At the ceremony, state Sen. Nick Barborak spoke of the date - June 6, 2014 - as marking not only the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Nazi-occupied France during World War II, but also what would have been Madden's 68th birthday. Barborak correlated the sacrifices made by thousands of American soldiers on D-Day with the birth of Madden, which occurred exactly two years later, to his parents, Bill and Hilda Madden.
"While they didn't know it at the time, their child would go on to become a hero, just like the men at Normandy," Barborak said. It was on May 21, 1967 in Vietnam when the 21-year-old Madden would earn that honor.
He was serving as a fire team leader with Company D, 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, when his company was attacked while crossing a rice field inside enemy territory. With his group badly outnumbered and sustaining crippling casualties, Madden pressed on through 200 yards of heavy gunfire, mortar fire and grenade blasts to set up a firing position. Despite the sustained danger, he moved about the area, directing and encouraging his men, until he was fatally wounded.
For his actions, Madden was posthumously awarded the Silver Star by President Lyndon Johnson.
In addition to remembering Madden's heroism in battle, the day was an occasion to remember his life as well. "It's hard to tell you how good a guy he was," said his brother, Jack Madden of Leetonia. He said numerous friends and acquaintances were inspired by Ernest's service and sacrifice to join the military and serve their country too.
As tokens of that sacrifice, Jack received an honorary flag and shell casings from members of the Tri-State Burial Group Color Guard, who fired a salute and played taps during the ceremony.
Jack also says his family has a special connection to the designated portion of state Route 45, which runs from Lisbon Street in the village to Township Line Road. His son Jason grew up there, just one-fifth of a mile from the Honor Roll, when his young family lived in Wellsville.
Another of Ernest's brothers, Jerry Madden, was singled out by Barborak as being the motivating force for requesting the legislation he introduced that made the honorary designation a reality. "This whole process, from start to finish, has been a true honor for me," Barborak said. "It's been a real pleasure to see it through."
For his part, Jerry said he was very happy, and expressed his surprise at what proved to be much more than the small crowd he had anticipated. "I'm really very thankful for everyone who came today," he said.
Gretchen Madden, Jerry's wife, said it was great to have a lasting legacy for someone who did something so important, earning appreciation even from those who may never have heard of Ernest Madden before. "Whether they knew Ernie or didn't know Ernie, you can't drive by it without thinking, 'Oh wow, this is something special.'"
Mayor Susan Haugh agreed with Gretchen's assessment. In her introduction of Barborak, she thanked him for his work in getting the legislation passed. "Because of your support, I will never make this turn onto Route 45 without being reminded of the bravery of this young man and the ultimate sacrifice he made so we can be a free society," she said.