UNION – Thanks to a partnership between the township and the Veteran’s Alliance Committee, a long awaited war memorial befitting the bravery and valor of all Union servicemen and women is coming to fruition.
The park, Tom Mahoney Military Park, is being built on a plot of township-owned land on Chestnut Street, just down the road from Honor Roll Park. As construction and landscapers hurry to put the finishing touches on the memorial set into trees and beautiful serene landscaping, there is still time to ensure all veterans are a part of this lasting tribute scheduled to be dedicated early next month.
The park will have three walkways leading to a circular center, where bricks purchased by families to honor a veteran in their life will be placed. The bricks, $100 each, will be engraved with the name of the veteran, branch of service, rank and years of service, then placed in the honorary circle at the memorial. The only requirement is the person being honored served in the military.
For decades residents and veterans alike questioned why the township only honored veterans who were residents of Union when they entered the service. Veterans of Foreign War member Bob Johnsen, who served his country for nine years in the U.S. Army, including a stint in Vietnam, admitted he pondered this also but felt there was a way to honor all veterans who moved to Union, not just those born and raised there.
Eventually he sat down with Township Administrator Ron Manzella and presented what he believed would be a very special memorial honoring all veterans living in the township for 20 years or more. Manzella said he liked what he heard and thought the governing body might feel the same way, which they did.
After that things moved quickly. Johnsen was appointed as a liaison between the newly formed Veterans Alliance Committee and the Township Committee while plans for this new memorial began in earnest.
“I thought it was time the township had a lasting memorial where all veterans could be recognized,” said Johnsen in an interview last week, adding that he worked closely with governing body member Mannuel Figueiredo, who was just as determined to see the project move forward.
Helping to kick off the financial end of the project were seven unknown donors who each contributed $5,000 so ground could be broken and the project could be moved along. But in the back of his mind, Johnsen was thinking about Mahoney, a World War II Navy veteran, who worked day and night to ensure no one ever forgot those who served their country in the military.
“We knew that this park had to be named in honor of Tom because he was the ultimate veteran,” said the VFW member.
Mahoney, who joined the Navy in 1940 and was on the USS Curtis when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, survived even though a plane the crew shot down plummeted 10,000 feet to the deck and exploded. Later a bomb exploded four decks down and almost simultaneously a nearby submarine released a torpedo that sank the destroyer. Still, Mahoney survived to tell of his harrowing escape.
The war hero was transferred in 1943 to another ship and continued to fight the war non-stop from Australia to Tokyo. Of the 12 destroyers in his squadron, only three were left at the end of the war but the Navy gave them the honor of escorting the fleet into Tokyo Bay.
This Navy hero sailed 3,000 miles of ocean waters and fought 1,100 days, eventually receiving the New Jersey Distinguished Metal of Honor for his bravery. On that day, Johnsen said a humbled Mahoney accepted the award, but pointed out this was not just for him “but all veterans.”
Despite the many accolades he received over the years for this distinguished service, Johnsen said this humble demeanor was present when he heard the township memorial honoring all veterans would bear his name.
Although well into his 90’s, this spring Mahoney was working on the speech he planned to give when the park is dedicated in November. Johnsen said in April or May his longtime friend called and asked him to hear the speech he prepared for the dedication ceremony. Of course, he was more than willing, and even honored.
“After he read it, he asked if it was okay and I said it was perfect and then he asked for a favor. One I thought was strange at the time, but of course I agreed,” Johnsen said.
Mahoney requested that his friend take a copy of his speech just in case he was not at the dedication to read it. Johnsen said he assured the war hero he would be on hand to read his own speech, a short time later Mahoney passed away. Johnsen confessed that he was taken back by what took place, but was heartened that he had a copy of the war hero’s speech.
“We will be reading Tom’s words on Nov. 10 with pride,” Johnsen said, his voice thick with respect for the veteran he admired so much.
As liaison to the township, Johnsen has been front and center as this memorial moved along. His VFW post also has been instrumental in ensuring that in the end, Union salutes all veterans, regardless where they hailed from prior to moving to the township.
VFW Michael A. Kelly Post 2433 Commander Leo Graf said post members and the Ladies Auxiliary raised over $11,000 for the park. This was accomplished through patron donations, flag pole purchases and 40 bricks being purchased by members. So far, 150 bricks have been sold, but Johnsen and Manzella agreed that once the community heard about this special tribute, that number would certainly increase significantly
Plus, there is no deadline on the memorial bricks. Johnsen and Manzella said even after the dedication, bricks will still be available for purchase.
“We will make sure the bricks are put at the memorial, no matter when residents buy them,” Manzella said, adding the memorial will be an ongoing project that will be added onto over the years with bricks.
“It’s a wonderful way to remember someone who served our country,” the township administrator said.
Johnsen said anyone can buy a brick for a veteran by contacting the VFW at 908-851-5235, or they can stop by the Stuyvesant Avenue post or municipal building to pick up the form required to dedicate a brick.