UNION, NJ – An abbreviated Memorial Day program to honor fallen heroes, and a ceremony to re-dedicate the refurbished Veterans Memorial Honor Roll Park, took place Monday morning at the park, located on Stuyvesant and Wewanna Avenues.

“In light of the current pandemic, this year’s parade, honoring the men and women of our armed forces who fought and died for the freedoms that we hold dear, was taken away,” said Union Mayor Michele Delisfort.  “It was with a heavy heart that we announced the parade cancellation, breaking a tradition that has been in place since for as long as I can remember.  It was not an easy decision to make.”

Delisfort thanked the Memorial Day Parade Committee for the continuous and tireless work organizing the parade each year.  The 2020 Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshal, Brigadier General Edward Chrystal attended the event, along with township officials, military veterans, State Senator Joe Cryan, and first responders.

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“It’s an honor to be invited here to participate in the ceremonies,” said Chrystal, who spent part of his youth in Union and attended Connecticut Farms Elementary School.  “Union’s always answered the call whenever it’s needed and it’s great to have folks like Bob Johnsen, the VFW, and the New Jersey Veteran’s Network here to make sure the veterans aren’t forgotten.”

“On behalf of the Township of Union Veterans Alliance, I thank those who have come out and for respecting our veterans,” said Bob Johnsen, VFW Past Commander and Quartermaster.

Five local Union veterans who served in the U.S. Armed Forces were honored by Township Committee members:

Jeffrey W. Koonce was killed in action November 19, 1967, in Kontum Province, Vietnam.  He was 20 years old, born 1947.  He was a Sergeant E5 in the 173rd Airborne Brigade, Company C, 2nd Battalion, 503rd Infantry of the United States Army.  He was a graduate of Union High School, Class of 1965, and a member of the wrestling team.  There are memorials to Jeffrey W. Koonce on Indiana Street in Vauxhall, the New Jersey Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.

Private Frederick Carl Koenig, a member of the 15th Infantry Regiment 3rd U.S. Army, was killed in action on June 10, 1953, in the Battle of Outpost Harry, part of the so-called Iron Triangle in North Korea, one of the last engagements of the Korean War.  He was 21.  His grave is in Hollywood Memorial Park on Stuyvesant Avenue.  The daughter of one of the 12 survivors of the battle said her father remembers Private Koenig and speaks highly of his heroic efforts that night.

The Armistice ending hostilities was signed on July 27, 1953.  On November 23 of that year, Esther Egbert, the chair of the Honor Roll Fund, requested that crosses be placed in Union’s Memorial Park for Godfrey, O’Kane, Helke, and Koenig.  These men are also memorialized online at the Korean War Project, along with their comrades.

Ernest Mathews was the oldest living World War II veteran in Vauxhall and one of five Mathew brothers, who all served in World War II at the same time.  He was 97 years old, born in 1922 in Vauxhall.  He was 21 years old when he was drafted into the United States Army.

Mathews was a Technician Grade 5, Truck Driver, Heavy Equipment in the Army Corps of Engineers, Headquarters and Service Company, 927th Engineering Aviation Regiment, which was a segregated Military Unit of the United States Army.  He also was a Military Police Officer and a guard.

Mathews was stationed in the Western Pacific Theater of Operation on the Island of Guam during World War II.  He was Honorably Discharged from military service in 1946. 

Ernest Mathews passed away on March 26, 2020.

Private Manny Centeno served three-and-a-half years during World War II in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the forerunner of the U.S. Air Force.  Centeno fought in the Middle East, North Africa, Italy, India, and China.  His primary responsibility was servicing .50-califber machine guns on U.S. warplanes.

Centeno kept a diary of his departures from and arrivals at U.S. and Allied based.  On September 20, 1942, he boarded a troop transport ship in the harbor of Jersey City, destination Rio de Janeiro.  From there, Centeno left for Cape Town, South Africa, en route to Yemen, finally arriving at the Egyptian air base defending the Suez Canal.  His 315th Service Group was deployed there for three months until being sent to Tripoli and bases in Tunisia.  Centeno spent five months in Italy.  He and his unit continued to Mumbai, India, where they remained for nine months, before heading to their final destination of China.

Centeno was one of the many recipients of a letter sent on January 1, 1944, by Gen. Dwight Eisenhower that read, in part, “I take my leave of you with feelings of…pride in your brilliant accomplishments of the year just past.  In the late fall of 1942…no Allied ship could transit the length of the Mediterranean …All this is changed – changed by your skills.”

Seaman Second Class Otto Carl Schwarz served in the Navy from 1941 as a seventeen-year old until 1945 when the war ended.  After enlisting in the Navy, Schwarz was assigned to the USS Houston, a cruiser, stationed in the Pacific Ocean.  On February 28, 1942, the Houston sank in a naval battle off the western coast of Java.  After spending 16 hours in the water, Schwarz was captured by the Japanese and for four days and three nights was forced to pull a cart of ammunition and was denied food and water.  For the next two years, he remained a Prisoner of War until the war ended in 1945.  Schwarz was awarded the Prisoner of War Medal, and he is the founder of the USS Houston Survivors Association.

Schwarz lived in Union for approximately 40 years with his wife Trudy until his death in 2006.  Trudy continued to live in Union until her death in 2017.  Two sons survive their parents.

Schwarz was a member of the Optimist Club of Union and was very involved with the Galloping Hill Civic Association.  Next to the YMCA Wellness Center on Galloping Hill Road just below Five Points, there is a small wooded area with a sign reading ‘Otto Schwarz Woods’ named after Schwarz for his service to our country and our township.

Delisfort and the Township Committee members, along with Cryan, township officials and veterans then held a ribbon cutting ceremony to officially re-open the Veterans Memorial Honor Roll Park.

Created in the early 1940s, Honor Roll and Veterans Memorial Park has been a memorial to honor Union residents who served their country during World War II.  Each veteran who paid the ultimate price is represented with a cross or Star of David, while residents who returned home to their families are honored with their name on one of the panels.

In 1953, the memorial expanded to honor the township’s Korean War veterans.  And in 1969, those who served in the Vietnam War were also honored and included in the park.

Most recently, the World War I Memorial was moved from the Cannon area in Union and placed at Veterans Memorial Honor Roll Park to collectively represent and honor every resident who has proudly and honorably represented the Township of Union in battle.

“Today I’m honored to rededicate this park to the memory of those who lost their lives and fell in service to our country, paying the ultimate sacrifice,” said Delisfort.  “Their stories and their lives are and will continue to be an inspiration.”