By Gloria Stravelli
METUCHEN – In keeping with a 30-year tradition, a group of local military veterans will gather in Veterans Memorial Park for a solemn overnight vigil to remember and honor members of the nation’s armed forces who served in Vietnam and who remain unaccounted for.
The 24-hour POW/MIA vigil, hosted locally by the Viet Nam Veterans of America, Chapter 233 of Central New Jersey, will begin at noon on Friday, Sept. 17, which is National POW/MIA Recognition Day, at Memorial Park on Essex Avenue.
The vigil continues overnight until 10 a.m., Saturday, Sept. 18, when the closing ceremony will take place.
Local veteran Al Miller chairs the vigil each year. Ask Miller and he will readily tell you the reason for keeping the solemn watch.
“So nobody ever forgets,” Miller said of the service members who remain listed officially as Prisoners of War/Missing in Action. “We mention the soldier’s name so they’ll never be forgotten. People forget and you shouldn’t forget. If you say their names, they’ll never be forgotten.”
Over the course of the vigil, every hour there is a Call to Duty, when a candle is lighted for each local POW/MIA soldier. Their name, rank, town, date of birth and date reported missing are read aloud.
People sometimes speak, read poems or recite a prayer, said Miller, who served in the U.S. Navy.
“We open with the Pledge of Allegiance, a prayer, the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’” Miller said. “We do a nice opening and then any dignitaries who are there come up and talk before we start lighting the candles. A good crowd shows up.”
According to the National League of POW/MIA Families, 40 New Jersey residents remained missing or unaccounted for as of Aug. 3, but Chapter 233 includes two additional veterans in the ceremony, including Richard Herold, a Metuchen resident whose hometown was misidentified, according to Miller.
All are welcome to attend the vigil.
“Everybody’s welcome to come, some families come,” Miller said. “We light candles on the hour every hour. A bell is rung for each person, poems are read, the podium is open to anyone who wants to come up and talk about the person.”
According to Ed Marczak, president, Chapter 233 has been meeting at the American Legion Hall in Metuchen for some 30 years and while veterans may move out of area, they keep their ties to the group.
“We have guys who never left us, they’re in Florida, Las Vegas, wherever they retired to,” said Marczak, who served as a U.S. Navy Petty Officer stationed in Da Nang, Vietnam.
Among the chapter veterans expected to be at the vigil is Dave Drummond, of Monroe, a former B52 pilot whose aircraft was shot down, Marczak said. Drummond and his crew all survived, but spent time in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton” prison, he said.
The ceremony has special meaning for families of the veterans who are still not accounted for, Marczak explained.
“One of our mottos is ‘Leave No Veteran Behind,’ ” he said. “That means alive or dead, it encompasses everything. It means a lot because the families don’t have closure. It’s a mission of honor that we have.”
Jim Hixson, of Dunellen, is a co-chair of the vigil and a delegate to the Vietnam Veterans of America New Jersey State Council. Hixson served in the U.S. Air Force and was stationed in Vietnam 1965 to 1966.
He said the POW/MIA vigil is held on the third Friday in September, with the local site moving several times over the past 30 years, finally settling into Veterans Memorial Park.
“We’ve been holding this ceremony for over 30 years,” Hixson said. “We started in New Brunswick before I joined the chapter … and moved around, we were at Roosevelt Park and have settled into Veterans Memorial Park for a long time, after 1995.”
Former U.S. Navy chaplain Rev. Hazel Shue will offer the opening and closing prayers, he added.
According to Hixson, different detachments take part in the ceremony, including the Central Jersey Leathernecks of the Marine Corps League, which will take part in the opening ceremony. Also, the John Basilone Detachment 190 of the Marine Corps League, based in Raritan, will be at the ceremony.
“I’m only one of many,” Hixson said of the dedicated members who keep the tradition going. “We try to coordinate as best we can. It takes a lot of people to help.”
According to Miller, local officials expected to attend the vigil include Metuchen Mayor Jonathan Busch, who is expected to be at the observance on Sept. 17. Others who have attended in the past include Commissioner Ronald G. Rios, director of the Middlesex County Board of Commissioners.
“He will be there, he always comes, he’s never missed one yet,” said Miller, adding, “Sen. Patrick J. Diegnan years ago stopped in, said a prayer, lit a candle. He has come back every year.”
The ceremony also features visuals and a stark reminder – a replica of a bamboo cage in which some captured service members were held.
“We put up posters, plaques, in remembrance of our brothers and sisters,” Miller said. “We have a bamboo cage like the one where they used to hold the POWs. It’s a cramped space, they put them on display in that.
“We have 42 homemade dog tags,” he said, one for each of the locals still unaccounted for. “When I first started there were 63 ‘Jersey boys’ among the 1,587 missing. If they want the bio of the person, we have that too. They’re Jersey boys from all over New Jersey.
“After each one lights the candle, we salute, march to the cage, call out the person’s name, hang the dog tag in the cage and salute again. We leave them up, and at night it gives us chills because sometimes you hear them tinkling.
“It’s emotional,” said Miller, who has been attending observances locally and throughout New Jersey for over 30 years. “Yes, it gets to you.”
He acknowledged that it is becoming difficult to keep the tradition going.
“It’s not like years ago, everybody’s getting older,” he said, adding local veterans are determined the ceremony will continue.
“It’s important because all of the families are waiting for answers, everybody wants closure and that’s why we keep on pushing this,” he said. “Also, to make people aware. A lot of people don’t know how many POWs there are.
“They come down there and remember. We have veterans come down and see what goes on, see they’re not forgotten, and they end up joining our chapter.
“We made a promise,” Miller said, “that we’d do it until we can’t do it anymore.”
Rev. Shue, former pastor at the United Methodist Church in Dunellen, was invited to be the chaplain for Chapter 233 by Hixson.
“I was a chaplain in the service, I’m a Navy vet, and it touched my heart,” Shue said. “Most of the people that are involved in the vigil are either Vietnam veterans or their spouses, or, I believe, their children.
“I just continued working with them because I’m a Navy veteran. I was a chaplain in the Navy, was active duty for six years. I left active duty and went into the Navy Reserves and was assigned to a fleet hospital, and we were the first reserve hospital called up for Operation Desert Storm. So we were in Saudi Arabia for six months.”
Shue said she composes the prayer for each vigil.
“It’s a special prayer … I will put it together, use a couple of resources for the vigil, remembering it’s so close to Sept. 11. It’s a very moving time.
“I’m sure there’s healing, there’s fellowship and dignitaries come and honor the veterans. The members of the group, their spouses, they talk together and remember together.
“Some in our country did a disservice to the Vietnam vets, not only to those who came back, but to those who are still missing, those MIA, POWs, unknown.
“It’s honoring all of them, but most especially those that are still missing, in a 24-hour vigil, and one of the key things with the Vietnam vet is to say, ‘Welcome home’ to them because they weren’t welcomed.
“And it’s honoring the living and honoring the dead and the unknown. At this point … you always hold out the hope,” Shue said.