After waiting 60 years for a monument acknowledging the 156 Hoboken residents who served in World War II, local veterans planned to gather at Fourth Street and Sinatra Drive this Saturday Nov. 11 on Veterans Day for a ground-breaking of the World War II Waterfront Memorial.
Mayor David Roberts and the City Council will also be on hand for the historic event.
“It’s a great thing, it’s a long time coming,” said combat veteran Vincent Wassman, 81. “There are a lot of people that should have been here to see it and are not here.”
Wassman enlisted in the Navy during World War II and was also drafted into the Army for the Korean War, from which he retired as a sergeant major, the highest rank one can attain in the service without becoming an officer.
Another Hoboken resident who was a combat veteran from World War II is purple-heart recipient Roy Huelbig, who served in the Army with the 15th Mechanized Calvary regiment.
“Guys just want to be remembered,” said the 82-year-old, whose leg still contains the shrapnel he received from a German shell that exploded near him in March of 1944.
Huelbig added, “It was never scary. You knew you were in danger, but you didn’t realize it until you looked back years later. You have no fear as a 19-year-old kid.”
Huelbig and Wassman will be joined by over 50 other veterans on Saturday, according to the ceremony’s coordinator John Carey, an Army Vietnam veteran.
The Saturday, Nov. 11 ceremony was slated to begin at 10:30 a.m. with an informal meeting between veterans and residents at the memorial at Fourth and Sinatra Drive.
The meeting will be accompanied by 1940s big band music as well as a performance by Rev. Shirley Cummins, who will sing Amazing Grace along with her son Jonathan.
At 11 a.m. the groundbreaking for the World War II Memorial Monument will take place.
It will be followed by the ringing of the American Legion Post 107 bell at 11:11 a.m. to signify the signing of the World War I Armistice, which ended the war.
Veterans Day was signed in to law by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954. Before that, the national holiday was referred to as Armistice Day to commemorate the agreement that brought an end to a World War I, which claimed approximately 9,906,000 lives and left about 21,219,000 men wounded.
A veteran’s dinner
For a group of former service members from the Paramus Veteran’s Hospital, this year’s Veteran’s Day came early courtesy of Hoboken’s American Legion Post 107, who hosted a dinner party in their honor at the Elks Lodge on Washington Street.
“It makes you feel good to see all these guys again,” said 82-year-old Jimmy Fisher, a former Hoboken resident and Elks Club member who was a Navy combat veteran from 1941 through 1947. “I come to Hoboken at least twice a year with these guys. [American Legion Members] treat you like gold.”
This past Monday evening, approximately 25 World War II, Korea, and Vietnam veterans shuffled down the contorted stone stairway that leads to the Elks basement, where they were served a hot meal by Legion members and several volunteers.
Disabled and wheelchair-bound veterans were unable to attend the event because there were not enough able-bodied men available to bring them down the stairs.
Some of the veterans on hand, however, seemed to defy their age, such as 89-year-old former combat medic Gene McVeigh, who served in the Army from 1942 through 1945.
“I kept my roller skates until I was 75 years old and my legs gave out,” said McVeigh, who belongs to a gym in Paramus. “You stay active, you stay young – it’s that simple,” he said.
One of the most intriguing stories told around the table Monday night came from a very young 83-year-old named Patrick Kilhaney. The Navy Veteran was on the USS Bismarck Sea (CVE-95) escort carrier during World War II. On Feb. 21, 1945, two kamikazes plowed through the deck sinking the Bismarck and causing the death of 218 men, according to the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, with only 378 men being rescued.
For four hours, Kilhaney floated in shark-infested waters, dodging stray bullets from Japanese fighter jets overhead, until a Navy Destroyer rescued him.
“I was a 19-year-old-kid who believed ‘you couldn’t hurt me,’ ” recalled Kilhaney. “I still think about being in the water and how many never came out from it.”
Michael Mullins can be reached at email@example.com.