MONTVILLE, NJ – Montville Township resident and World War II hero Hjalmar Johansson was the featured speaker at the Morris County Memorial Day Commemoration and veterans’ medals’ event on May 24, sponsored by the Morris County Board of Freeholders.

The event, held on the lawn of the Morris County Courthouse, was opened by Morris County Freeholder Director Doug Cabana.

“Since the Revolutionary War, more than a million American soldiers have lost their lives protecting our nation and protecting those freedoms that we have been so privileged to enjoy,” Cabana said.

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“Throughout history, members of our military have selflessly answered our nation’s call and continue to make the ultimate sacrifice in protecting us both here in the United States and around the world with courage, determination and pride.”

Johansson then spoke with a reminder about the long weekend.

“First, I’d like to say what Memorial Day is all about,” Johansson said. “It’s not about sales, selling cars, or hot dog eating contests. It’s about something much more important than that. It’s about so many brave men and women who passed away, who we are here to honor for their sacrifice.

“Just imagine if we had not won World War II. Imagine what you would be thinking about doing right now. You wouldn’t be thinking about getting in your car – you might not have one, because the Germans would be in charge. Let’s imagine that the Germans and the Japanese beat us, and we’re all registered as ‘Alien Enemy.’ We probably wouldn’t have a car to drive. We wouldn’t have a home. We would have a number – we would be restricted.

“I just did a little bit in my contribution – more was done to me than I did to anyone else,” he said.

Johansson then spoke about his harrowing experience as a prisoner of war during World War II for five months, after being shot down and crashing in Austria. He was the nose gunner in a B-24 bomber on a mission to destroy a Polish oil refinery. He spent time in solitary confinement, was sent by train to a prisoner of war camp, and spent five months there, at Stalag 3A.

“We were given a cup and a spoon,” he said. “We didn’t have a fork or knife – what did we have to cut? They just dished out with a ladle what they called food. That’s how I lost 40 pounds in five months.”

At the end of his ordeal, sailing back into New York Harbor and sighting the Statue of Liberty, Johansson said, “You only know what liberty is until after you’ve lost it.”

The county freeholders also honored eight veterans with special Distinguished Service Medals. 

Medals were presented to:

  • Louis Bodian, Morristown, U.S. Army, 1969-71
  • George Briscoe, Budd Lake, U.S. Navy. 2001-2004
  • Loris Clarke, Kenvil, U.S. Army, 1992-95
  • Kenneth Gorman, Mount Hope, U.S. Air Force, 1965-71
  • Eugene Lemoncelli, Dover, U.S. Marine Corps, 1954-57
  • John McDermott, Denville, U.S. Army, 1946-47
  • Christopher Orr, Wharton, U.S. Army, 1974-89
  • Paul Vico, Morris Plains, U.S. Army, 1969-70

McDermott, who served in Japan at the conclusion of World War II, also received his long-awaited federal medals, the World War II Victory Medal and Army of Occupation–Japan medal. McDermott had long been eligible for the medals but had never received them after service, possibly due to bureaucratic snafu, according to a release from the county. His daughter contacted Morris County Veterans’ Office last year and they contacted the Army and arranged to have the medals sent to her, the release stated.

The ceremony featured the Marine Corps Color Guard, Golf Co, 2nd Battalion, 25th Regiment from Picatinny Arsenal; the Morris County Sheriff’s Department Color Guard; an invocation by Rev. Sydney Williams, Bethel AME Church, in Morristown; and patriotic songs by the Lakeview School Select Chorus of Denville.

Bagpipes were played by Sergeant Matt Potter and Captain Robert McNally of the Prosecutor’s office, and the wreath laying featured retired County Veterans’ Services Officer Charles Jurgensen and Gary Zakrzeski.

To read more of Hjalmar Johansson’s story, click: Cedar Hill appearance and Library appearance