By Ron Leir
It will likely take another five years before the state completes construction of the new Hackensack River (Rt. 7) bridge that links Kearny and Jersey City.
However, that isn’t stopping Kearny leaders from acting now to urge New Jersey officials to keep Kearny in mind when it comes to attaching a name to the new span that will rise just north of the existing bridge.
A resolution passed by the town governing body on March 27 reads, in part, “The Town of Kearny hereby petitions the Governor, the Commissioner of the Department of Transportation and the Hudson County Legislative Delegation to use their best efforts to name the new bridge in honor of … a Kearny serviceman who has made the ultimate sacrifice in the service of his country.”
This proposal comes in the wake of neighboring North Arlington, in tandem with state legislators, calling on Gov. Chris Christie to endorse the naming of the Passaic River bridge connecting North Arlington and Belleville for Marine Lance Cpl. Osbrany Montes de Oca, 20, who was killed on combat on Feb. 10 in the Helmond Province of Afghanistan. That bridge was revamped several years ago.
While the existing Rt. 7 bridge linking Kearny and Jersey City was named for H. Otto Wittpenn, a former three-term mayor of Jersey City from Jan. 1, 1908, to June 16, 1913, who served as a state highway commissioner and Naval officer of the Port of New York, Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos said it would be appropriate for the replacement bridge to bear a different name.
“How many people today know who Wittpenn is?” he wondered.
Interestingly, Wittpenn was accorded the honor with the bridge’s opening in 1930, when he was still among the living. He died the following year at age 59, reportedly from blood poisoning. During his mayoral tenure, he appointed reformer Cornelia F. Bradford as the first woman member of the Jersey City Board of Education.
At any rate, Santos said he’s conferring with the United Veterans Organization (UVO), an umbrella group of local veterans’ organizations, to arrive at a consensus on which of “a long list of names” of those Kearny residents “who made the ultimate sacrifice” to choose for the honor.
In past years, Santos noted, Kearny has taken pains to attach the names of Kearny veterans who’ve died in the line of duty to a myriad of public spaces – streets, flagpoles, parks and playgrounds, playing fields and even fire rigs.
When improvements to the town’s Brighton Ave. playground are completed, it’s expected that it will be named for Army Staff Sgt. Edward Karolasz, of Kearny, who was at age 25 killed in Iraq on Nov. 19, 2005.
The names of those Kearny residents who gave their lives for their country were collected by the Gold Star Mothers, a local unit of a national group formed after World War I to comfort the mothers of servicemen and women killed in the war, and then enshrined on plaques in the “War Memorial Hall” in the lobby of Kearny Town Hall dedicated on Nov. 11, 2008.
Kearny lost 56 veterans in World War I, 178 in World War II, 11 in the Korean War, 11 in the Vietnam War and one in the Iraqi War, according to Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle, liaison to the UVO.
A separate plaque in the War Memorial Hall is devoted to the memory of Lt. Vincent R. Capodanno, a Congressional Medal of Honor winner. Capodanno, a Navy chaplain assigned to 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Marine Division, was killed in combat on Sept. 4, 1967, at Quang Tin Province, Vietnam. He was 38.
“He’s our only Medal of Honor winner,” Doyle said. “He served so honorably. He would be my choice (for the bridge naming).”
Doyle said that members of the UVO, led by Anthony Capitti, who is also commander of the Frobisher American Legion post, have preliminarily discussed the matter and are leaning in the direction of nominating Capodanno for the honor.
The UVO membership is expected to make that choice official with a formal vote scheduled for April 30, according to Doyle.
“This man (Capodanno) would be a proper choice for the bridge name,” Capitti added.
Initially, another potential candidate considered was the Rev. John Washington, a local Catholic priest, and one of the “Four Chaplains” who perished after giving up their life preservers to soldiers aboard the Dorchester which sank in the North Atlantic after being torpedoed on Feb. 3, 1943.
“The town renamed part of Washington Ave. as Father Washington Way about five years ago,” Doyle said, “so he’s been recognized in the right way.”
Capodanno’s official Medal of Honor citation reads, in part, that as 2nd Platoon, M Company was under attack by an overwhelming enemy force, “… Lt. Capodanno left the relative safety of the company command post and ran through an open area raked with fire, directly to the beleaguered platoon. Disregarding the intense enemy small-arms, automatic-weapons, and mortar fire, he moved about the battlefield administering last rites to the dying and giving medical aid to the wounded.” This he continued to do, despite suffering mortar rounds that caused “multiple wounds to his arms and legs and severed a portion of his right hand….” As he rushed to assist a wounded Marine, “… only inches from his goal, he was struck down by a burst of machine gun fire.”
Regardless of who the bridge is named after, the legacy of that hero will span generations.