A “Massachusetts Medal of Honor Highway” sign placed at the Westfield-Russell border in September 2023. Another sign was recently placed at the border with West Springfield.

Reminder Publishing photo by Tyler Lederer

WESTFIELD — Two signs designating Route 20 as the “Massachusetts Medal of Honor Highway” have been placed along Westfield’s strip of the highway. The signs were sponsored and paid for by the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart, which is aiming to get them in every Massachusetts town and city along the highway corridor.

The Medal of Honor is the highest award a military servicemember can receive. Since it was created by the Navy in 1861, it has been awarded to 3,517 people, said American Legion Post 207 Rider Billy Hearn at a West Springfield sign unveiling ceremony on March 25. Only 19 have received it twice and 618 have received it posthumously. He said 40% of medals were awarded during the Civil War. Massachusetts veterans have received 265 medals, making it the third most awarded state. As of Jan. 24, he said, only 63 award recipients nationwide are still alive.

No Medal of Honor recipients are buried in Westfield, said former American Legion Post 124 Commander and Westfield Veterans Graves Officer Gene Theroux.

Westfield’s Medal of Honor highway signs are located at the Russel and West Springfield borders, with the latter attached to the “Entering Westfield” sign. The Westfield-Russell sign was erected in September 2023, while the Westfield-West Springfield one was put up Friday, March 22.

There are no plans for more signs along the route in Westfield, said Veterans Services Director Julia Barnes. Barnes said there was supposed to be a dedication ceremony during the city’s last Veterans Day celebration, but rainy weather caused the program to be relocated inside and shortened. She said a ceremony could happen, probably on Memorial Day, but that would be decided by the Veterans Council.

The goal of the signs, Theroux said, was to honor the awarded veterans.

“Clearly to be awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, you’ve done remarkable things, more than humanly expected of a member of the armed forces,” he said.

Barnes said that Westfield already has signs for the Military Order of the Purple Heart’s Purple Heart Trail, which honors all veterans who died in service. That designation runs along Route 202 in Westfield from Holyoke to Southwick. The Medal of Honor Highway signs, she said, are a way to honor a different group of veterans.

“We pay tribute to those who demonstrated extraordinary courage and selflessness in the face of danger as they served,” she said.

In November 2022, Massachusetts became the 12th and final state to designate Route 20 as the “Medal of Honor Highway.” The legislation, signed by then-Gov. Charlie Baker, was sponsored by state Sens. John Velis (D-Westfield) and Jake Oliveira (D-Ludlow). Route 20 stretches from Kenmore Square in Boston to Newport, Oregon, the state where the campaign originated.

“We thought that the highest military honor should be associated with the longest highway in the country,” said Brian Willette, commander of the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart.

Unlike in other states, the Massachusetts Military Order of the Purple Heart bought smaller, “town-sized” signs, so individual towns and cities could hold their own ceremonies, Willette said. All signs are sponsored and paid for by the Purple Heart group. They cost no more than $125, he said; the organization spent $1,800 total on signage.

The first Massachusetts signs were unveiled at dedication ceremonies in August 2023 in Palmer and in Kenmore Square. The latest unveiling ceremony was in West Springfield on March 25, coinciding with National Medal of Honor Day.

Besides West Springfield and Westfield, signs currently exist in Palmer, Wilbraham, and Pittsfield. Willette said the military order is working on placing them in other Western Massachusetts communities along Route 20 that don’t have them, like Springfield, Chester, Huntington and Russel.

The military order’s goal is to get a sign in every municipality along the Route 20 corridor in Massachusetts. This may take several years, Willette said, because his organization is based in Western Massachusetts. Nonetheless, the organization welcomes the “longevity of the process,” he said.

“It’s important that people have that visual reminder as they pass them that others have paid a high price for their freedom,” said Willette.

tlederer@thereminder.com | + posts