The day after the city’s Veterans Day ceremony on Wednesday — which drew a turnout of 200 people — five war veterans gathered at their headquarters at American Legion Post 107 on Third Street. Waiting outside, bantering and suddenly laughing, they sounded like a group of twentysomethings.
But once inside, a group of elderly men ranging in age from 68 to 90 rifled through post cards that school children had sent to their mailbox the day before. The sentiments on the cards are a reminder of the sacrifice the men had made for their country. “Thank you for your bravery and for helping our family stay safe, From Nora,” read one. Another: “Thank you for your service, Love Sophia.”
On the day before, at Elysian Park, Post 107 (founded in 1921) was joined by Mayor Dawn Zimmer and community members who met to pay respects to local veterans as well as troops serving overseas.
“Today we thank our veterans for all the sacrifices they have made for us, but words aren’t enough,” said Mayor Zimmer. “In partnership with the American Legion, Hoboken Shelter, and Hudson County, we are working to create transitional housing for veterans so we can help to end veteran homelessness and provide the care and support that they deserve.”
90-year-old Vinnie Wassman, who was born and raised in Hoboken, served in both World War II (1941-1945) and the Korean War (1950 –1953).
“Going over, everyone would be happy, laughing and fooling around,” recalled Wassman from his World War II days. “Coming back was very sad with all the bodies on the ships.”
He remembered sailing aboard a ship amongst 500 in a convoy from England across the North Atlantic. The bodies of fellow soldiers were on board, and German submarines combed the seas underneath waiting to sink his ship.
“Going over everyone would be happy, laughing and fooling around. Coming back was very sad with all the bodies.” – Vinnie Wassman
Wassman sat alongside his fellow veterans: John Carey, 71, the commander of post 107; Francis Przygoda, Michael Melendez, 68, and Edward Huelbig, 91.
Huelbig has a Purple Heart (a decoration awarded to wounded servicemen in the name of the president of the United States), and his own memories from WWII.
“During a reconnaissance, we went out to find the enemy, and one particular time going down the road in the lead Jeep, a guy started shooting at us from a church steeple,” he recalled. “So I got [out] a 50-caliber gun, and it [jammed].”
Huelbig had just turned the legal driving age like Wassman.
“I went underneath the Jeep and hoped this b—-rd wouldn’t get us. “[Another time] we were trying to get some sleep. There were three of us. And suddenly a shell landed near us and exploded. From where we were, I got hit, another guy got hit, and a kid who was about 17 that was [between us sleeping] died from a concussion.”
Carey, who took over for Tom Kennedy as commander of Post 107, was 21 when he enlisted early in the Vietnam War. Although that may seem young, he was the oldest in his group.
Melendez, also a soldier during Vietnam, was 18 and Przygoda, who was in the Korean War, was 17. Still, they knew of soldiers who were even younger who lied about their age in order to enlist.
“One in my group was 16,” said Carey.
Of the five veterans, Wassman and Huelbig saw combat. The others worked in various fields, from a machinist to a logistical worker supplying everything from a pencil to a plane.
Progress of Post 107
Sadly, Post 107, which aims to help war veterans in all the branches of the Armed Forces, lost three members this year: Robert Nichols, the financial officer at Post 107 for over 30 years; Vito Lanzo, and Miguel Oliveras. Currently, Carey said, they’re waiting for final approval from the National Headquarters of the American Legion to change the name of the local organization to Tom Kennedy Hoboken Post 107. Kennedy died three years ago.
The Hoboken branch of the nationwide organization currently has as many as 80 members, but Carey estimates Hoboken has 300-400 veterans: “Maybe even a thousand.”
Post 107 arranges to visit schoolchildren and discuss the importance of Flag Day and Veterans Day. Last Monday, as they do on occasion, the group hosted a dinner for disabled veterans. They also send care packages to Hoboken troops currently serving.
However, some troops are reluctant to join Post 107.
“Some people, when they come out the service, they’re not excited to join military organizations,” said Carey. “They want to put the war behind them. For some of them, it takes a while before they join or they don’t realize what the American Legion can do for them. We help them get their benefits and have programs, things like that. I think they want a little separation from the war, especially these young kids coming back from Iraq.”
Przygoda, 80, thinks the concept of “fraternal organizations” is becoming a thing of the past.
“These kinds of organizations are going by the wayside,” he said. “I don’t care what you’re talking about, even sororities, fraternities on campus. They’re not particularly active so much anymore….we work too much [as a society], especially in the New York Metropolitan area…my father would be appalled by people who volunteer to work 80 hours a week. There’s no time for organizations like this, and if you have kids it’s even worse.”
The five veterans were in accordance that the current generation appreciates the “veteran.”
“Absolutely, they teach them in school to say ‘Thank you for what you did’ and it’s very nice to hear that from the children,” said Wassman.
To donate to Post 107 and learn about future events, visit americanlegionpost107nj.com.
Steven Rodas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Student wins essay contest
During Hoboken’s Veterans Day ceremony, officials announced a winner for the inaugural Veterans Day essay competition for students. Josephine Conlon, a seventh grader at the Hoboken Charter School, won first place from among 100 students.
Mayor Dawn Zimmer and American Legion Post 107 Commander John Carey awarded her an official proclamation and an American flag that had been flown above City Hall.
“[I] thank all of the school children who wrote such thoughtful essays honoring our veterans, and congratulate Josephine Conlon on her exceptional and heartfelt winning entry,” said Zimmer.
Conlon’s father was a United States Marine who passed away from cancer when she was 2.
During the ceremony, she read her essay, which also made reference to her great-grandfather, who served in the Navy during WWII as a surgeon at the Naval Hospital at Pearl Harbor.
“All of those people out there fighting right this second really do deserve to be honored, because even though you can’t see right now, they are working so hard to protect people that they don’t even know,” reads an excerpt from Conlon’s essay. “They are risking their lives, and most of all, their family’s hearts. What those soldiers are doing right now means the world to me. Veterans Day honors not only the people that are serving right now in war, but people like my dad and great grandfather that dedicated their lives as well.”
Additional winners were also named from each school participating in the contest, including Jaime Rodriguez from Connors School, Jayson Lombardo from Calabro School, and Julienne Trent from Hoboken Catholic Academy. – SR