They came from every corner of Hudson County, veterans wearing red or blue hats, and Junior ROTC students from three Jersey City schools, all arriving to remember those who have died in defense of their country.
Originally called Decoration Day, the Memorial Day holiday was initially dedicated to those who fought and died in the American Civil War. The federal holiday eventually became a day to honor all Americans who have died in military service.
“It is not a day to celebrate,” said Hudson County Surrogate Judge Donald DeLeo, who led the proceedings at the official Hudson County commemoration, held in the mausoleum of Holy Name cemetery. “It is a day to honor our veterans buried in the plots behind me and those buried around the world.”
Although veterans and others from around the county historically gathered before the nearly hundred graves in a veteran’s plaza area, three years ago lightning brought the ceremony into the mausoleum, where it was also conducted on May 22 this year as rain filled the gray day outside.
“We’ve been here every year since,” DeLeo said, paying tribute to the Archdiocese of Newark that allowed the veterans to hold the ceremony here.
“We must pay tribute to the men and women who have given up their lives to protect our freedoms.” -- Anthony Romano
Not many left from WWII
Most of the more than 50 veterans who attended the event served in World War II and/or Korea, an aging population that is rapidly fading away.
“I don’t know what we’re going to do when they aren’t here anymore,” DeLeo said.
For decades, veterans associated with World War II and Korea have been the backbone of remembrance ceremonies, although DeLeo, who is also active in North Bergen, said there are younger veterans starting to come into organizations there.
Bayonne veterans have been seeking to recruit veterans from later wars into their posts as well.
County Executive Tom DeGise in speaking before the assembly said that he was encouraged by the fact that three local schools had brought their students to the event.
“There will always be a Memorial Day service in Hudson County,” he pledged.
Freeholder Anthony Romano, Paraphrasing General Mac Arthur said, “Old soldiers might fade away, but won’t be forgotten.”
While JROTC students from McNair and Lincoln high schools have taken part in previous Memorial Day ceremonies, DeGise said this was the first year for Dickinson students. “Part of this is about passing on the baton to the next generations,” he said.
Veterans from Jersey City, Hoboken, Secaucus, Bayonne, North Bergen and other parts of North Hudson greeted each other, and then stood as the color guards from Bayonne, the Hudson County Sheriff’s Office, and all three ROTC programs marched in.
Although originally scheduled to have “The Star Spangled Banner” sung by Hudson County Corrections Officer Lakia Gaillard, JROTC 2nd Lt. Justin Archilla volunteered to fill in, and later led the singing of “America the Beautiful” as well.
Vincent Wassman, past Commander of American Legion Post 107 of Hoboken, read “In Flanders Field,” a poem written to reflect those who died during World War I. The reading was accompanied by Jack O’Brien on flute.
DeGise said two of the key people in maintaining the veterans’ traditions – DeLeo, an Army veteran, and former Freeholder Barry Dugan, a former U.S. Marine – will eventually pass on the baton to younger people, and it is hoped the veterans from later wars such as Vietnam, Middle East conflicts, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan will join the ranks to honor the dead.
Romano raised a significant issue about the need to take care of wounded vets, alluding to a scandal in the Veterans Administration that was revealed over the last few weeks suggesting that vets had been forced to wait for care.
Romano said the arrival of the USS Cole in New York Harbor for Fleet Week is symbolic of another kind of warfare. The USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers in October, 2000 while in Port Arden, Yemen to refuel. Seventeen sailors were killed, and 37 others were wounded.
“We are under constant threat,” Romano said. “We must pay tribute to the men and women who have given up their lives to protect our freedoms.”
Al Sullivan may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.