UNION COUNTY, NJ — Frequent visitors to Rahway River Park may be familiar with the variety of trees growing throughout, yet few may be able to identify those planted in 1947 to honor 58 Union County citizens who died in World War II.
Of the 58 trees planted as memorials, 15 were no longer standing but were replaced earlier this month, thanks in part to the efforts of Alex Shipley, director of the Merchants and Drovers Tavern Museum in Rahway.
Shipley uncovered a detailed draftsman’s map that revealed the seemingly lost and forgotten information about the tree memorials. The map detailed the locations of the 58 trees and for which veteran each had been planted. He used the map to find the trees in the park, discovering that 15 were missing.
It took months for Shipley to arrange for Union County Parks workers to plant new saplings, but the refurbishment of Memorial Tree Grove was finally completed Monday, Dec. 4, three days before the 76th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which launched the United States into World War II.
The saplings can be found in close vicinity to where they were originally located, according to the map.
County spokesperson Seb D’Elia told LocalSource in a Dec. 5 email that the missing trees were replaced and in the historic tree grove around the memorial marker is being refurbished. This effort is part of Union County Freeholder Chairman Bruce Bergen’s UC-HERO initiative to honor local veterans, D’Elia told Localsource.
In proximity to the trees and saplings near the parking lot, Shipley directed attention to a small monument erected in 1947 that displays the names of the soldiers whose sacrifices are remembered by the surrounding environment.
For years, Shipley was aware of that monument, but had no previous knowledge of the memorial trees until stumbling across his discovery. He told LocalSource he’d found the 70-year-old draftsman’s map burrowed at the bottom of a donated box.
“I was contacted by the nephew of Union County veteran, 1st Lt. Walter E. Williams, during the summer of 2016,” Shipley told LocalSource on Dec. 7.
The nephew, Walter Williams, who was named after his uncle who’d died fighting in Germany, asked Shipley if he could drop off two boxes of memorabilia.
Not knowing what treasures were inside the antique box, Shipley welcomed the material, but left the boxes alone for awhile. It was not until a few months later in January, that he sifted through the contents and found a scrapbook, photos, newspaper articles, letters of condolence for Williams’ death and, underneath it all, a map folded in thirds.
“When opening the map, I discovered the tree grove, which described the position of each tree and what soldier they represented,” Shipley said.
Inside the box was also an article published in the Rahway News-Record dated June 5, 1947, documenting and confirming the original ceremony held Memorial Day, May 30, 1947, to remember the fallen 58 soldiers through a tree-planting ceremony.
The grove would be “a memorial which will grow as the years pass to keep generations aware of the sacrifice which these men made to permit the continuation of our way of life,” according to the Rahway News-Record editorial.
Despite more recent revelations of the grove, Shipley believes many people may be unaware of its location.
“I would really like to see a plaque or marking on the trees that indicate their purpose,” he said.