At a ceremony on Wednesday to mark the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I, various officials and veterans remembered Hoboken’s important role in the conflict.
All German-born residents were required to register as “enemy aliens.”
World War I began in 1914, after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, and lasted until 1918. During the conflict, Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Central Powers fought against the Allied Powers; Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan and the United States.
On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Government officially declared war on Germany. One of the country’s first official acts was the seizure of Hoboken’s German-owned shipping piers and liners, which were soon converted into the port of embarkation for the U.S. Expeditionary Forces.
The designation as a port of embarkation meant national fame for Hoboken.
When soldiers left from the city’s ports, General John J. Pershing promised the troops they’d be in “Heaven, Hell or Hoboken” by Christmas of 1917, and it became a national rallying cry for a swift end to the war.
Between the spring of 1917 and the fall of 1918, two million American servicemen passed through Hoboken on their way to and from Europe.
In May 1917, Congress passed the Selective Service Act, requiring American men ages 21 to 30 to register for the draft. By war’s end 24 million Americans had registered.
Hoboken was one of the most German cities in New Jersey, with nearly 26 percent of its 70,000 residents being either German-born or the children of German immigrants. All German-born residents were required to register as “enemy aliens,” and many lost their jobs, homes, and businesses.
Last living vets
The last living World War I veteran died in 2011, but it’s still important to hold ceremonies honoring the conflict in order to keep history from fading, said County Executive Tom DeGise at the ceremony.
A light rain fell as Korean War and World War II veteran Vinnie Wassman as he read a poem at Pier A Park.
The ceremony included remarks from Mayor Dawn Zimmer, Freeholder Anthony Romano, County Executive Tom DeGise, and JoAnna Northgrave, who works for Hudson County Department of Veterans Affairs. There was also music from the Hoboken High School Red Wings marching band and choir.
“Hoboken was one of the main points of embarkation, right here on Pier A,” said Hoboken Historical Museum Director Bob Foster. “We used their ocean liners to transport our soldiers or what were called ‘Doughboys’ out.”
A total of 936 voyages to France and England were made from Hoboken during the war and over 2,400 draftees were from Hoboken.
WWII Veteran Jack O’Brien, played patriotic tunes on a fife and WWII and Korean War Veteran Vinnie Wassman, recited John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” accompanied by the brass section of the band playing “America the Beautiful.”
The ceremony took place in front of the WWI Memorial boulder which was dedicated in 1925 to the “valiant American Expeditionary Forces who embarked from the port to participate in the World War 1917 – 1918.”
The Hoboken Historical Museum has been marking the centennial with a lecture series and a newly launched reading discussion group. The group is reading a collection of writings about and from the WWI period on May 7 at 4 p.m.
Residents can attend the next lecture “Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken: The U.S. Army Port of Embarkation in Hoboken During World War I,” by Mark Van Ellis, Professor of History at Queensborough Community College, and author of America and World War I: A Traveler’s Guide.
For more information go to www.hobokenmuseum.org
Marilyn Baer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.