CLARK, NJ - When William J. "Duff" Duffy joined the Clark Police Department in 1972, he pictured his career in law enforcement and serving the community. Duff never knew this career path would lead him on what he calls “a forty year odyssey” that started with a simple question. Duff, a self-proclaimed history buff, wondered about twelve names that appeared on the World War II monument outside of Arthur L. Johnson High School on Westfield Avenue in Clark. He wanted to know more about these soldiers but no one he asked at the police station, library or around town seemed to know anything. Sparked by curiosity and driven by his own experiences as a soldier, Duff set out on a voyage to understand and honor each of those soldiers.
Duff’s journey started in the Elizabeth, NJ Public Library. He searched the microfiche of the Elizabeth Daily Journal between December 7, 1941, the day of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, and August 14, 1945, VJ Day. Knowing that these dates represented the start and end of World War II, Duff suspected he would find the stories of Clark’s WWII heroes in these records. The old news stories led Duff to details about how many of these men fell in the line of duty, to possible addresses where they had lived and eventually to family members and the full stories he sought.
Duff’s success with these original twelve veterans led him to continue and broaden his investigation to find all of Clark's fallen heroes. Over the years he has compiled a collection of stories, pictures, maps, casualty reports, medals, gravesite images, uniforms and even last letters home from many of these soldiers. His research took him as far back as the Civil War and James Bullman who died in 1864 fighting for the Union Army.
One letter strikes at the heart of the reader. A dad tells a baby son that he has yet to meet, other than through the words of his mom, to be a good boy and that next year they will have fun when they are together when Santa comes. The letter, signed “Your Loving Father,” is a sobering reminder of how soon this soldier’s life ended and how empty his death left the life of a child not yet one year old. The baby boy to whom the letter was written is now sixty-nine years old and lives in Kenilworth, NJ.
This story and others were shared by Duff on Thursday, May 21, 2014 as he offered a presentation to honor these soldiers to the Junior and Senior classes of Arthur L. Johnson High School. His presentation, entitled, “We Remember Our Clark Fallen Heroes,” highlighted the twenty one fallen heroes of Clark from the Civil War through Operation Enduring Freedom.
Duff shared an in-depth view of these soldiers including where they lived, how they died, where they are buried and the streets in Clark that are named for them. Duff gave special consideration to those fallen heroes who had attended ALJ High School. He paused and asked the students to consider that one of these soldiers might have used the locker they now call their own, to remember these soldiers walked the same halls and ate lunch in the same cafeteria. Duff showed yearbook photos of the soldiers to remind today’s students of others that came before them and the ultimate sacrifice they made for freedom.
The last two fallen heroes Duff talked about were more recent ALJ graduates Stephen Benish and James Harvey. Benish perished in 2004 during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Harvey in 2011 during Operation Enduring Freedom. Harvey’s family was in the audience during the presentation. Duff closed his presentation with a video showing the return of Sergeant Harvey’s remains to the United States in a dignified military ceremony.
Principal Rick Delmonico closed the event by reminding students that although many tend to think of Memorial Day as beaches, barbeques and the start of summer, the true meaning was contained in Duff's words.