Photo by David Handschuh

New Jersey post commemorates World War I, Legion centennial

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Legionnaire Russell Becker has a collection of World War I memorabilia that he enjoys showcasing to other war enthusiasts and for educational purposes. He shares an interest in military history with Legionnaire Amery Vasso, as the two are Civil War re-enactors; their shared passion sparked an idea amongst Vasso that would allow Becker and others to display their war memorabilia – to host a public event that recognized the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into the Great War, honored the namesake of Post 91 in Wharton, N.J., and highlighted The American Legion’s upcoming centennial.

William J. Hocking Post 91’s World War I Commemoration event was held April 1 at the post and involved World War I artifacts from museums and private collectors, presentations from historians and Legion family members, and a host of political dignitaries.

“Without World War I, more than likely, The American Legion wouldn’t exist,” said Vasso, Post 91 adjutant. “(Post 91’s) event showed the community how The American Legion came to be, the reason for our upcoming centennial, and it really brought the community together to focus on our first major event of the 20th century. World War I was when America made its global presence known, and that is significant.”

The World War I Commemoration event got underway with opening remarks by Post Commander Leon Stickle and Vasso, prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance lead by U.S. Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J. The event immediately segued into attendees viewing World War I artifacts displayed on tables throughout the post, listening to presentations, and reading about the history of Post 91 and of The American Legion.

Three poster boards displayed a brief history on the founding of The American Legion, which Vasso adapted from the Legion’s centennial website, along with background information on Post 91’s namesake. Pvt. William J. Hocking, a native of Wharton, was killed in action on Nov. 1, 1918, in France, just 10 days before the armistice. The post was chartered in April 1928, and Vasso said a celebration will be held next year to recognize the 100th anniversary of Hocking’s death, the 90th anniversary of the post and the Legion’s centennial.

Of the more than 300 Legion posts in New Jersey, 116 are centennial posts. Chuck Robbins, the Department of New Jersey’s Centennial Committee chairman, shared with event attendees how the department is preparing for The American Legion’s 100th anniversary.

Robbins handed out Legion centennial brochures and showcased the Department of New Jersey’s centennial challenge coin, sold for $10 apiece, which has raised more than $17,000 toward the department’s centennial efforts of hosting a grand gala in the fall of 2018.

“By the time everyone left they knew what the centennial was for the Legion in New Jersey and nationally,” Robbins said.

Besides the Legion’s centennial celebration, attendees also heard from Douglas McVarish with the New Jersey World War I Centennial Committee about the role New Jersey played leading up to and during the war, where the 160 World War I memorials are located in the state and upcoming events to honor the war. For example, McVarish shared how Hoboken was a major point of embarkation for troops leaving the United States for Europe, how it served as the point of arrival for soldiers returning home from the war, and that more than 140,000 New Jersey men served in World War I, which included nearly 400 who were part of the Army’s 369th infantry regiment, known as the “Harlem Hellfighters.”

The Harlem Hellfighters was the first African-American infantry unit to fight in World War I, and Richard Sears Walling, a historian, said “the story of the Hellfighters is little known by the general public.” He shared photos and newspaper clippings of the regiment and its deployment to France, a PowerPoint of more than 174 original photos of the regiment, and that a number of American Legion posts were named after members of the Harlem Hellfighters, such as Post 5 in Washington, D.C., named after Lt. James Reese Europe, who is credited with introducing jazz to France.

“The Post 91 event was an excellent and informative program. The highlights included some excellent collections of World War I uniforms, accouterments and weapons,” Walling said.

American World War I helmets, bayonets, relics from the Battle of Belleau Wood in France and a Spirit of the American Doughboy statue were displayed by Becker, a battlefield collector for more than 20 years. He also had British, French and German bayonets, along with German recruiting posters, spiked and steel helmets, hand grenades, and original photos of German soldiers dressed in uniform and in the trenches. A 1919 American Legion school achievement coin with a doughboy on one side and the Legion emblem on the other was also part of Becker’s military display, which didn’t include description labels on any of the items.

“I don’t label anything because I want people to talk to me and then I can explain the history and purpose for each item,” said Becker, a member of Post 128 in Bergenfield, N.J. “The event was great and very interesting, and I wish more Legion post’s would do this.”

John Rountree, a collector since 1955, displayed his stepfather’s World War I uniform, who was in the U.S. Army’s 309th infantry regiment and a wagoner in France, as well as photos of the 309th leaving France after the war. He had several rifles used during the war, such as a 1903 Springfield, British 303 and a Russian Mosin Nagant, along with bayonets and cartridge belts.

The display that intrigued Vasso and many others was that of Tom and Ellie Zaleski’s. Their table featured World War I medals, including a Distinguished Service Cross, a Gold Star medallion, a picture of a woman standing next to a gravesite, a 1930 Auxiliary membership card, a folded American flag, a photo of a ship and more. The items belonged to Tom’s grandmother Mary Rummell, who passed away in 1960, but he uncovered the treasures in a paper sack and drawer after the passing of his father.

Mary was part of the first – and only – all-expense paid trip by the U.S. government for World War I Gold Star mothers and widows (if they were not remarried) to visit the final resting places of their fallen loved ones. The pilgrimage spanned from 1930 to 1933, and nearly 6,700 women boarded ocean liners in New York for a departure to France, Belgium or England for the month-long journey. When Mary visited the gravesite of her son, Army Sgt. Walter Klinger, at the American military cemetery in Romague, France, in August of 1930, she was given a Gold Star medallion with her name on it to wear, the U.S. flag draped over her son’s gravesite, and flowers to put in its place.

“When I found (Mary’s) American Legion Auxiliary card from 1930, it increased the bond I felt for her,” said Ellie, president of Unit 390 in Denville, N.J. “And more so that my son served two tours in Iraq, I’m involved with the Blue Star Mothers (of America). I was lucky, my son came home to me. I feel such a bond to her.”

Other presenter were from the Wharton Historical Society; Picatinny Arsenal, which was founded in 1880 and specializes in the research, development and lifecycle of advanced conventional weapon systems and ammunition; the Daughters of the American Revolution; and the 102nd Cavalry Regiment Association, which shared uniforms and helmets from the Essex Troop, a group of horsemen formed in 1890 in Newark, N.J., who were called to active duty and served as military police during the war.

Vasso’s ability to obtain a large group of World War I historians and presenters for the event was the result of networking and reaching out to the community. Overall, he was happy with the event, the enthusiasm shared by all and the great turnout, which included Wharton Mayor William Chegwidden, Harding Township Mayor Nicolas Platt, New Jersey Sen. Anthony Bucco and several other distinguished guests.

“We really believe in what The American Legion does, and the fact that what was created 100 years ago is still going is amazing,” Vasso said. “The founders of The American Legion created something that was able to endure and sustain itself.

“I believe what we accomplished here can be replicated by any post to honor the Legion’s centennial and showcase what The American Legion is all about.”