When I make a visit this Veterans Day to the New Jersey World War II Memorial — across the street from New Jersey’s capitol building in Trenton — I’ll remember the service of a passing generation as well as my humbler efforts regarding the war.
Although I was born several years after the surrender of the Axis powers, I just may be one of the last individuals “drafted” into action for that’s war effort — or, more accurately, to commemorate the efforts of those men and women who served in that war.
It started on a late spring day in 2008. I was in an office on West State Street in Trenton and working part-time for the New Jersey State Council on the Arts public arts program. Among other activities, that program interacted with state agencies on special building projects. Suddenly the program’s coordinator, Tom Moran (now chief curator for Grounds For Sculpture), appeared next to me and announced something to the effect of, “Stop whatever you’re working on. The governor has announced that he wants the New Jersey World War II Memorial complete for Veterans Day, and you are going to help write it.”
My reply was a nod of my head and the utterance, “Cool.”
The memorial was a project of the New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, and Jack McGreevey, father of a former governor, was the chair. While the design had been approved and some work completed, the construction was far behind schedule. Although that’s status quo for state projects (and I’ve been involved with several to know), the sad reality was that the veterans who served in the war were aging and frankly did not have the time to wait for this memorial to be completed.
For a variety of reasons, former marine and then current governor Jon Corzine decided that it was time to get the memorial built, and he put his well stocked checkbook behind his order to make it happen. With the governor’s involvement, the memorial moved in seconds from “Oh, yeah, that should be built” to “Why isn’t it done yet?” An attitude consistent with military operations, I learned.
In any case, work needed to be done, and that included writing the text. Since I had worked as a newspaper writer as well as a exhibition text writer for the Franklin Institute and the Philadelphia Zoo, it made sense to draft me for the effort. The current project that I was working on would just have to wait.
As with many of my generation, World War II was always a presence. My father, several uncles, and an aunt had served in that war; so too had my father-in-law. I learned plenty from listening to family members — including one uncle who seemed obsessed with collecting Nazi memorabilia — and the former soldiers who were now neighborhood dads in the Camden suburb where I was raised. There was also the era’s books, movies, and television shows designed to attract the attention of the “Greatest Generation.”
This context provided me with a generally informed sense of the war and a conviction that there was something right about recognizing our state’s men and women who had put their lives on the line during the largest war in history. There was also the urgency of making it happen in their lifetimes.
Yet it was strange to realize that I — with no-military experience — was suddenly involved with an all military and state operation. I had attempted to enlist in the navy but was rejected because I admitted to a history of sleepwalking. So I went to college. Despite the anti-soldier mentality on those Vietnam War era campuses, it turned out that many of my friends were ex-military guys who helped me develop a military mindset when I needed it.
And I needed it when I showed up to my first meeting comprised of veterans representing different military branches and experiences. One included a marine who had become an English teacher and who was now relieved that he had help to argue punctuation and grammar points. With the Chicago Manual of Style, a dictionary, a willingness to engage, and the ability to stare everyone down, if need be, the marine and I became the editors.
True to the spirit of Moran’s announcement that day, all attention went to the governor’s decree, and I sharpened my pencils, got a pad, and started working out an offensive.
The memorial committee had decided that there would be time lines for both the Atlantic and Pacific war theaters, written in the shortest amount of words possible. So we set about asking the veterans for input, researching, writing, editing, reviewing, and participating in lively meetings.
As summer blossomed and others were heading to the beach or going on vacation, I was busy studying the Battle of Stalingrad, the Red Ball Express, Eisenhower’s decision to launch the offensive on Normandy, the Death March of Bataan, the liberation of Paris and Rome, and more.
An additional duty for me was to check facts and prowl for problems. And while that sounds wonkish, the reality that the memorial words were going to be on stone and porcelain walls for a long time, put weight on the task. And I would wake up in the middle of the night convinced that I had just sent in copy that misspelled everything, especially the name Dwight Eisenhower.
And as it is with someone else’s writing everyone else thinks he or she knows everything without really investigating, so I needed to prepare for review as if I were a lawyer or a military strategist. The most interesting experience in this process was when we were writing about the Warsaw ghetto (with a small “g”) — or was it Ghetto (with a capital)?
Seeing the term for the place of the Jewish uprising in Warsaw printed both ways and hearing people make pronouncements that it needed to be a capital “G” because it was a place, I wanted to settle the matter in the most credible way possible.
To do so I went to a higher authority, called the Holocaust Museum in Washington, and spoke to its chief writer. He explained that the name that connected the city of Warsaw with the word “ghetto” was developed for a TV movie in the 1970s and that it was not an actual name (so much for the know-it-alls). He went on to say that a team of rabbis and historians had discussed the matter and decided to use the now popular name but with a small “g.” Upon my request, he forwarded me the documentation which I kept ready whenever an expert started making pronouncements about the need to capitalize the name of the ghetto in Warsaw.
There was also another need: a time line of the war effort in the Garden State.
While there was a lot of information regarding the war in general, the history of our state at war would demand a lot more research and detective work. I soon found a fascinating world that is quickly fading.
I learned by calling the Fort Dix Museum that thousands of German and Italian prisoners of war were sent to war camps in our state. These were young men drafted and sent to war fronts that quickly fell. Although official enemy combatants, they were in reality just Sad Sacks caught up in the war machine. While in New Jersey, they were offered and accepted paying jobs on state farms — ironically filling in for workers who were fighting overseas. When the war was over, many returned and settled here. And while security was low, so too were problems, except for an Italian POW who escaped to visit relatives in South Philadelphia during a festival weekend; he returned when that event was over.
Who would have thought New Jersey was the carrier pigeon center of the country at the start of the war? During WW I General Pershing had become impressed by the birds’ communication use and later established a U.S. carrier pigeon center at Fort Monmouth. Even though radio communications were more sophisticated at the start of WWII, pigeons still proved to an effective messenger system. In fact there are several stories of pigeon valor, including that of the famed Blackie Halligan, the wounded pigeon that provided vital information to U.S. forces at Guadalcanal. After being cited and decorated by the military, Blackie retired to Fort Monmouth.
Then there was a list of other New Jersey at war facts. With the formation of the country’s first Civil Air Patrol in New Jersey, state farmers became pilots and harassed and frightened German U-boats. A young candy company in Newark received a K-ration contract and provided GIs with a then unknown product, M&Ms. The Pictatinny Arsenal in Sussex County emerged as one of nation’s major ammunition makers, employing more than 18,000 employees working around the clock. A member of the famed Newark Calvary became the first American in liberated Paris. And a German submarine’s surrender to the U.S. Navy off the coast of Cape May made it one of the last surrenders of the European war.
Closer to the U.S. 1 area, the Radio Corporation of America Company in Princeton advanced radio technology and gave the Allies the upper hand in the Pacific. The U.S.O. in Trenton attracted millions of soldiers and became the place where numerous couples met and later married. And Albert Einstein wrote a letter to President Roosevelt that launched the Atomic era and helped end the war with Japan.
Yet perhaps one of the most memorable moments in the state’s World War II memories may have come 63 years after the end of the war, when the memorial was dedicated on Veterans Day 2008.
Since I was part of no formal committee — just a guy who got the info together and sweated over the facts, spelling, and punctuation of everything put on stone and porcelain — my place at the dedication was in the crowd. It was there that I found myself in an army of nearly 2,000 WW II veterans who had been waiting years for this moment, and I heard them talk and remember.
It was then that I realized that I was part of something bigger than I had anticipated or could ever dream. To see this body of seasoned men and women look at the memorial and hear theirs sighs and voices say, “It’s all here. It tells our story. It’s all here,” was startling.
It was also one of the most gratifying moments that I have ever had as a writer.
So when I visit the memorial this year, I will think of those voices in the crowd, the actions that happened long ago, and know that I did my duty to serve those who served our country during an uncertain time. In my own way I have said thank you.
The New Jersey World War II memorial is part of the State Capitol Complex and open every day. Free and convenient street parking is available on weekends and holidays. For directions go to www.njleg.state.nj.us/legislativepub/Visit_Complex_Guide.pdf
The official state ceremony will be held at 11 a.m. on Veterans Day at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery in Arneytown, Burlington County. www.state.nj.us/military/cemetery/events.html
For area Veterans Day commemorations, check U.S. 1’s events listings under November 11 and 12.