Week 29: Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home: Stories from Our Heroes
About 25 residents of the Menlo Park Veterans Memorial Home were seated around the central recreation area of the facility. It was just before lunch and I’d volunteered to join a group of them on a trip to see the Nutcracker.
The Veterans Home is run by the State of NJ Dept. of Military and Veterans Affairs and provides long-term, 24/7 medical and healthcare services. Military Veterans from all wars who served on active duty and were honorably discharged are eligible to reside in the facility, as are their spouses (as long as they were married a minimum of 10 years). Gold Star Parents (parents who have lost a child in battle) are also eligible to reside here.
The Home is divided into several wings which converge onto a large recreation area for socializing. A café, a chapel, a gift shop, a library and a barbershop edge the recreation area and invite the residents to be as independent as possible.
It was in this central recreation area that I had met the volunteer coordinator and was waiting to go on the trip. I was fortunate enough to sit next to one of the residents and strike up a conversation. Robert* was a Vietnam-era Navy Veteran who served his time in Cuba and then near Spain. He shared a story from January 1966 when a US B-52 bomber accidentally collided with a jet tanker over Spain’s Mediterranean coast and dropped three 70-kiloton hydrogen bombs. Two landed near the town of Palomares and one landed out to sea. US and Spanish military rushed to the area to clean up the debris and decontaminate the area. Robert was on one of the many US Navy vessels involved in the search at sea for the lost hydrogen bomb, which was eventually recovered. I’d never heard of the incident so had a lot of questions for him!
Just as Robert was finishing sharing his story, the volunteer coordinator asked if I would be interested in remaining at the facility for the day instead of going on the trip. Local students were coming to sing Christmas Carols, there was a hot chocolate and cookie social scheduled, and a Pet Therapy dog was due for a visit. They could use an extra set of hands. Of course I said yes – I was there for whatever assistance they needed.
I spent the afternoon helping in any way I could and chatting with the residents and their families (it was a Saturday so there were many families visiting). I met many wonderful people. Each of the residents I spoke with were very generous in sharing stories from both their military and civilian pasts.
As we were setting up for the afternoon events, I ended up talking with one particular Veteran, Martin*. He shared memories that were so vivid they really struck a chord with me. I’d like to share pieces of his story here….
Martin is an Army veteran who served in WWII. One of 5 boys raised in eastern Pennsylvania by a coal-miner father and an elementary-school teacher mother, he described his childhood as, “We were poor, but loved. Everyone was expected to pitch in. The five of us boys were close and always into some sort of mischief .”
In late 1940 his older brother Joe* enlisted in the military. The United States had just instituted the first peacetime draft in its history and all men between the ages of 21 and 45 would have to register. Martin remembers everyone talking about the draft when President Roosevelt signed it into law.
The draft was in response to the war going on in Europe and the Pacific and if you enlisted instead of waiting to be drafted you could chose your service branch. Joe chose to enlist because he wanted to serve in the Navy.
I asked Martin about his memories of the war.
He said at first the conflicts overseas did not seem like they would involve the United States. Japan had attacked China in 1936 and Germany had invaded and conquered a few smaller countries in Europe by early 1939. Martin said while people in America took notice of these battles, they were focused on US economic problems. We were just starting to recover from the Great Depression (which started after the Stock Market crash in 1929) and the country was still reeling from the impacts of the Dust Bowl. Unemployment was high, agriculture in the center part of the US was ravaged, wages were low and hundreds of thousands of Americans were still homeless and still living in shanty towns across the US. There was not much time to think about the far away places of Europe and the Pacific when you were scraping by day to day.
Martin said that changed in fall 1939 when Germany invaded Poland and then France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. He remembers the special news broadcasts detailing the events. Great Britain and France were two powerful allies of the United States and Martin said when they declared war people in America knew something important had shifted.
Martin said every few weeks during spring 1940 the newspapers announced another German victory… another country invaded and occupied. It was an alarming rate of aggression. Martin and his brothers would gather around the radio in the evening and listen to Elmer Davis’ news reports on the CBS broadcast radio network to hear the latest about the war. Then, in May 1940, Germany attacked France and within 6 weeks Paris had fallen. It seemed impossible, but it was true. Martin said a sense of dread fell over society.
Martin remembers that almost immediately after France surrendered, newspapers were full of stories of German blitzes on London and other major British cities. People were talking about Germany and its allies being unstoppable. It started to look as if Britain may fall. That’s why, by the end of 1940 President Roosevelt announced the draft. Martin remembers the powerful language of the President talking about the great nations who had fallen and that we had to prevent becoming a victim of German aggression. We were not declaring war, but we were preparing for it in case it came our way.
On December 7, 1941 the unimaginable happened. Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Over 2,400 Americans were killed and almost 1,200 were wounded. Martin’s brother Joe was one of the wounded. Martin remembers his mother crying when hearing about the attack and it taking many days before his family knew his brother had survived. By then, America had declared war and entered World War II.
I asked Martin about his enlistment. He said he was outraged that Japan would attack the United States and he was doubly angry that his brother was injured in the attack. He wanted to get out there to fight for his country. So instead of waiting for his draft number to be called he enlisted with the Army. He said almost all his friends and guys he knew enlisted.
Martin was assigned to Harbor Defense in San Francisco. Something I’d never heard of.
The San Francisco bay area was extremely important to the United States war effort. Most of the troops, ammunition, ships and supplies bound for war zones in the Pacific passed through the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Martin said the bridge had only opened a few years before (1937) and there was great fear of it being destroyed by the Japanese and blocking the entrance to the bay, thereby preventing military ships from entering and leaving. The government also felt the large population and military installations around the area were prime targets for Japanese attack.
An enormous defense system of weapons, mines and anti-submarine nets were stationed along the hills and coastline that surrounded the bay for the duration of the war. Over 2,000 soldiers were assigned to the Harbor Defense. Martin remembers arriving and receiving extensive training before being assigned to his duties, which included maintaining and firing the giant guns (some of which were large enough to fire shells that weighed over 1 ton and could shoot 26 miles out to sea).
He lived at the remote gun batteries (sleeping alongside the guns) and base stations for weeks at a time at a high state of readiness. Martin explained that he spent weeks on lookout, the gun covered with camouflage netting during the day and out in the open at night.
At night Martin said he looked down on the harbor. Sometimes, fearing possible attacks, the city was on lights-out orders and it was quiet and dark except for the stars. Other nights he’d watch a myriad of giant searchlights trained on the bridge and the sky and he’d hear testing of weapons.
During the day, he’d watch military ships coming and leaving port. Overhead, giant navy blimps armed with depth charges patrolled offshore waters looking for signs of Japanese submarines.
Martin served at that post for almost 3 years….
At this point in Martin’s story the carolers had arrived and so had the hot chocolate and cookies. I needed to turn my attention to lending a hand in the festivities. The Veterans Home has a very busy calendar to help encourage the residents to be active. They focus on creating an environment which stimulates involvement, self-esteem and independent choices. through diverse activities which include social, physical, intellectual, sensory, spiritual, creative and community oriented events. Individual and group volunteers are welcome to lend a hand in all these activities and it is easy to sign up on their website.
I was really touched and honored that Martin had shared such personal memories with me. His stories and those of the other residents with whom I spoke offered glimpses into lives and experiences which helped create the America of today. When would I otherwise have such an opportunity to hear these experiences and get to know these amazing, brave veterans? I learned so much about their lives and the wars and their experiences transitioning back to the civilian world. Their stories brought history to life!
I will definitely go back to the facility to lend a hand in whatever way I can. It is one small way I can give thanks to these proud heroes for their service and dedication to our freedoms.
To learn more about the Veterans Home of Menlo Park or to sign up to volunteer, please visit the website at: http://www.nj.gov/military/veterans/memorial-homes/menlo-park
* Please note: Names have been changed for privacy