By KATHY CHANG
LAWRENCEVILLE — Clutching her wedding photo taken on Sept. 8, 1945, Marie Rittman proudly accepted posthumous New Jersey Distinguished Service Medals (NJDSM) for four men she holds dear to her heart.
Those men are her husband, Pfc. Henry W. Rittman, who served in infantry combat with the U.S. Army during World War II; her brother, Staff Sgt. Anthony F. Silzer Jr., who served in aerial combat with the U.S. Army during World War II; her father, Cpl. Anthony F. Silzer Sr., who served in infantry combat with the U.S. Army during World War I; and her uncle Pvt. Joseph J. Wegant, who served in infantry combat with the U.S. Army during World War I.
At 91 years old, Rittman, of Milltown, said she is honored to have witnessed the medal ceremony on Jan. 24 at the Quakerbridge Mall in Lawrenceville.
The New Jersey Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, according to Kryn P. Westhoven, public affairs officer for the department, started holding medal ceremonies at shopping malls a decade ago.
The ceremonies serve two purposes: to honor deserving veterans with a state medal and to get information out to veterans and their families on the benefits New Jersey provides to veterans in the community, Westhoven said.
The NJDSM was originally issued in 1858 for those who distinguished themselves in the New Jersey militia, but was used infrequently until reauthorized by former Gov. Tom Kean in 1988.
The NJDSM is New Jersey’s highest military award. Since its reauthorization, more than 30,000 medals have been awarded to combat veterans from New Jersey.
“[The] ceremony was a special day and an honor for our family,” said Marie Rittman’s son, Robert Rittman, who set in motion the process for his father, uncle, grandfather and great uncle to be honored. “The Department of Military and Veterans Affairs does an excellent job recognizing the service of New Jersey veterans. The ceremonies are dignified … and worth attending.”
Robert Rittman said he has previously attended two ceremonies.
“For a long time I’ve wanted to apply for the NJDSM on behalf of my father who passed away in 1991, but I never got around to it,” he said.
Rittman said the idea for the ceremony originated in 2014 at the annual memorial service held at the Milltown Senior Center.
“There, my brother Gary was recognized for his service in Vietnam with the U.S. Marine Corps,” he said. “They also gave my mother a special tribute for being the wife, daughter and mother of a war veteran.”
In September 2016, the state had awarded Robert Rittman’s older brother Gary Rittman the NJDSM and the Vietnam Service Medal for his service as a radio technician in Vietnam from December 1969 to December 1970.
“It was then that I decided it was time to recognize these four [men] who came from the same town and who all served in combat in the World Wars,” Robert Rittman said.
The ceremony was also attended by Milltown Borough Council President Ronald Dixon, who is the commander of Milltown’s American Legion Joyce Kilmer Post No. 25.
“We were honored to have him there,” said Robert Rittman, adding that his uncle, Anthony Silzer Jr., had been a member of the post.
Gary Rittman said the ceremony was very dignified for his family.
“To me these [men] were my heroes. … I looked up to them for their service,” he said.
Henry W. Rittman grew up in Milltown. He entered the U.S. Army at Fort Dix on May 11, 1942. He served as an infantry machine gunner with the 142nd Infantry Regiment of the famed 36th Infantry Division.
Marie Rittman said she was engaged to her husband when he entered the U.S. Army.
“He was away for two and a half years,” she recalled. “We were married after the war on Sept. 8, 1945.”
Marie Rittman said her husband was wounded several times in the arms and legs during his service, which earned him three Purple Heart medals among the many medals that he received for his service.
On Sept. 9, 1943, Henry Rittman and his infantry landed in the first waves of the amphibious invasion of the mainland of Europe at Salerno, Italy, where the division suffered 1,900 casualties. He fought with the 36th Division as they slowly pushed the German Army up the Italian peninsula, participating in the epic Battle of Monte Cassino, where he was wounded for the first time.
After recovery, Henry Rittman rejoined the division as they went on to capture Rome in June 1944, the first Axis capital to fall.
Henry Rittman also participated in a second amphibious landing in the invasion of Southern France in August 1944, where he was wounded a second time.
In March 1945, Henry Rittman and his division entered Germany by crossing the infamous Siegfried Line, known as the Dragon’s Teeth, where he was wounded a third time just west of the Rhine River.
“He had shrapnel in his back that was too deep, they couldn’t take it out,” Marie Rittman said. “Every time he took an X-ray the doctors would ask him what that was.”
After returning from service, Henry Rittman settled down with his family in Milltown. He and Marie raised three boys, two of whom, Gary and Alan, followed in their family’s footsteps of serving in the military. Alan Rittman served in the U.S. Army.
Anthony F. Silzer Jr. was an aerial gunner for the 445th Bombardment Group (Heavy), a B-24 Liberator heavy bomber unit in the famous Eighth Air Force, which had missions over Germany and occupied France and Belgium.
“He served in 42 missions,” Marie Rittman said of her brother.
Silzer Jr. first enlisted as a private in Company E, 114th Infantry of the National Guard of New Jersey in New Brunswick in 1938. Then, on Sept. 2, 1942, Silzer Jr. enlisted again with the U.S. Army Air Force and trained as an airplane armorer and gunner.
Rittman’s brother was a lifelong resident of New Jersey, born in New Brunswick and living in Milltown. After the service, he returned to the borough where he lived until he passed away in 1973.
Anthony F. Silzer Sr. volunteered for World War I in September 1917, enlisting in Company H of the 2nd Regiment, National Guard of New Jersey in New Brunswick.
Company H merged with Company F of Elizabeth and Company M of Somerville to form the new Company H of the U.S. 113th Regiment of Infantry in the 29th Division, U.S. Army.
Silzer Sr. served as a rifle grenade squad leader in France. He fought in the defensive sector of Haute-Alsace from July 25-Sept. 23, 1918, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from Oct. 8-30, 1918.
“My father got gassed,” Rittman retold of what took place during the battles in France.
After his service, Silzer Sr. settled down with his family in Milltown in the early 1920s. In the late 1940s, Silzer Sr. was afflicted with tuberculosis, which was linked to exposure to gas in France during the war.
He spent three years convalescing in Roosevelt Sanatorium (a hospital) in Metuchen before returning to his home in Milltown. Marie Rittman’s father passed away on Nov. 5, 1978, in New Brunswick.
Joseph J. Wegant was a lifelong resident of New Jersey. He was born in South River and lived in Milltown. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1918 at the age of 31.
Wegant fought in the St. Mihiel Offensive in France from Sept. 12-16, 1918, in the Limey Sector from Sept. 16-Oct. 4, 1918, and in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive from Oct. 12-Nov. 7, 1918.
After returning from service, Wegant settled in Milltown, moved to Franklin Park and then moved back to the borough. He passed away at his home in Milltown in 1961.
For additional information, visit nj.gov.
Contact Kathy Chang at email@example.com.