Rosemary Cemelli Thieman vividly remembers the cold December day in 1966, when her family received word that her brother, Salvatore, was killed in Vietnam – the first fatality from Hudson County to come out of the Vietnam War.
“I was 15 years old and it was a Saturday morning,” Thieman said. “I remember seeing the (Army) Jeep pull up to the house and two Army fellows came out of the Jeep. It was traumatic to hear the words that Sal was gone. Mom took it hard. It was hard on all of us, because Christmas was coming up. It was tough.”
Salvatore Cemelli was 20 years old when he was ambushed along with two older soldiers in an area of Vietnam called Ru Liu on Dec. 8, 1966. He was on a peaceful recognizance mission in a village and was killed, just seven months after receiving his draft notice.
“I think of that boy every day,” said Jim Cemelli, Salvatore’s father, who still calls Weehawken and Gregory Avenue home after 55 years. “If he listened to me, he’d still be here today.”
The elder Cemelli used to own a grocery store in Hoboken and Sal worked at the store with his father.
“Every day, we’d come home a certain way and I’d pass a certain block around the corner,” Jim Cemelli said. “That turn always made me think of him. I’ll never forget him.”
Proud to serve
While Salvatore Cemelli went to Vietnam and never came home, Chuck Barone did go to Vietnam and was one of the fortunate ones to survive.
“I spent 366 days there in Vietnam,” Barone said. “It was a leap year. I was drafted in 1967 and then enlisted. I spent four years in the Army and six years total, with two years of Reserve duty. I was a proud American, proud of serving, proud of my duty. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t do anything differently.”
However, when the current North Hudson Regional Fire & Rescue captain and Weehawken Recreation director returned home from Vietnam, he was greeted with scorn and abuse.
“When I came home, I was spit on by someone,” Barone said. “I was proud to wear my uniform. Some others hid their uniforms, because of the reaction back home. It was tough back then.”
Distinguished Medal of Honor
However, the general public is gaining more of an appreciation for the Vietnam veteran. It used to be that only the World War II vets and Korean War vets received the accolades and praise; that the Vietnam vets were forgotten about, part of ridicule and resentment.
That’s not the case anymore. The Hudson County Board of Freeholders decided to make sure that the Vietnam veterans get the recognition they sorely deserve for their service and duty.
Thursday afternoon, at the Justice Brennan Courthouse in Jersey City, some 60 or so Vietnam veterans were given the Distinguished Medal of Honor from County Executive Tom DeGise and former Freeholder and Veterans Affairs Director Barry Dugan in a touching ceremony.
Barone graciously received his award.
“I’m kind of glad that we’ve finally come full circle,” Barone said. “The recognition for Vietnam vets has been coming in bits and pieces over the last 40 years. This award finalizes the entire process.”
In the past, the county has honored the World War II and Korean War vets. This was the first ceremony to present the Distinguished Medals of Honor to those who served in Vietnam.
Chuck Barone and the late Salvatore Cemelli were the only two from Weehawken honored in the ceremony.
“It was a nice ceremony and I was glad to be a part of it,” Barone said.
Gone, yet not forgotten
The Cemelli family went in unison to receive the honor in memory of Salvatore.
“I think it’s wonderful that they did this,” Rosemary Cemelli Thieman said. “I wish they did it a long time ago. I think it’s a relief for Mom and Dad that Sal’s still remembered. I’m proud that they took the time to remember him. I don’t care how many years it’s been. You never forget.”
Younger brother Paul, who was only 5 years old when his brother was killed, echoed those sentiments.
“It’s a good feeling that they’re honoring him,” Paul Cemelli said. “I’m just kind of surprised it has come this late.”
“I remember the day he left and he was putting his little brothers on his shoulders,” Rosemary Cemelli Thieman said. “Sal was always family oriented. I will always remember his compassion and love for his family. Because I was his little sister, he would always watch over me. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Sal and guys would stay away from me because I was Sal’s sister. He had an infectious smile and no matter where he went, he made people smile.”
Jim Cemelli still lives in the home where he and wife Rose raised their seven children. He says he watches the news today and sees the clips from Iraq.
“It’s the same thing,” Cemelli said. “I feel the same sadness that we felt back then. It’s the same type of feeling.”
But Cemelli accepted the award on behalf of his son with pride.
“He was a good boy,” Cemelli said. “I just wish he was still here.”
Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at either OGSMAR@aol.com or email@example.com