HILLSBOROUGH, NJ – Andrew Sator thought he was going to a family reunion.
He didn’t give it a second thought when he saw the cars in the parking lot with the out-of-town license plates.
It wasn’t until he went inside that he learned he was the honored guest.
The family reunion was just a ruse to explain why relatives drove in from Florida, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York and the Carolinas to join with the rest of the family from New Jersey to help the World War II veteran celebrate his 100th birthday Sunday afternoon at St. Michael the Archangel Ukrainian Catholic Church on Brook Boulevard.
"I didn’t know what to say; I wasn’t expecting this,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes.
More than 100 relatives gathered to salute “Uncle Andy,” taking turns to hug, kiss and sit with him, to savor the special occasion and to convey their love and respect to their family patriarch.
Actually, the milestone is still a few weeks off. Sator was born on Sept. 23, 1916, but family members realized it would be easier to gather everyone in the summer before the beginning of school, according to Leona Yates, a Florida relative who helped to organize the surprise party.
He was presented with a joint New Jersey Assembly and Senate Resolution by township Mayor Frank DelCore, congratulating him on his birthday, as well as honoring his service in the US Army during World War II.
The resolution also recognized Sator’s “green thumb.” He’s been working the same plot of land on a dead end on Dunellen for over 70 years, and has earned a reputation for growing huge pumpkins, squash and watermelons.
“He grows blackberries the size of ping pong balls,” Yates said.
A commemorative candy bar wrapped with a picture of “Uncle Andy” at work in his garden was placed at each seat.
“He enjoys telling stories,” Yates added. “He remembers, dates, times, he’s sharp as a tack.”
Sator also enjoys the occasional beer and “high ball,” according to his nephew, Dave Hydro.
He speaks softly, gesturing occasionally with his heavily-wrinkled hands. The words are as clear as the memories that pour out.
Sator doesn’t hesitate to recount his life story; how he met his wife Anna, when he shipped out to the South Pacific, the Army units he was assigned to, the battles he fought.
He met Anna in the kitchen of his mother’s house in Manville; his brother was married to Anna’s sister. They were married Oct. 26, 1943 before he and the rest of the men in the 27th Regiment (later to become the 25th), 2nd Battalion, went ashore in the Philippines.
Sator and his wife were married for 65 years. She died in 2008.
Sator epitomizes the men and women that Tom Brokaw wrote about in his 1998 book, “The Greatest Generation,” which profiled dozens of WWII veterans.
In the book, Brokaw writes, "It is, I believe, the greatest generation any society has ever produced," that men like Sator, and women, too, fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the "right thing to do.”
Hydro and other relatives have heard the war stories many times over the years, and they are proud to re-tell them, mindful that Sator, who was a heavy machine-gunner, was one of the lucky ones who came home to America.
Robbie Gibbins, married to a great, great niece of Sator’s, is a K9 police officer in Fort Pierce, Fla., and an Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan. He spoke at length with Sator as the almost-centenarian reminisced about his time in Luzon, the Phillipines, fighting against the Japanese.
“He is one of the fortunate ones,” Gibbins said.
They stood in front of a memory board loaded with faded black-and-white pictures showing Sator and his Army buddies in the Philippines, and later, Japan, where he became a cook for Army officers.
The pictures may have been faded, but the memories weren't.
They finished their conversation as another relative came out into the lobby to escort Sator back inside the banquet room for a group photo; after that, Sator made his way to his table where relatives coaxed him to toast his birthday with a cold beer.