By Karen Zautyk
The other day we visited Harrison Post No. 282 of the American Legion to learn a bit about its history. This, in anticipation of the Post’s 75th anniversary, to be marked officially in January 2014.
We plan to go back again soon in hopes of meeting one of its oldest members, a World War I veteran.
But, you say (at least those of you who know your U.S. history), hasn’t the last surviving American veteran of World War I died yet? Yes. In West Virginia in 2011. At age 110.
So who in Harrison. . . .?
We’ll tell you all about it later. The story is worth waiting for.
To return to the present: We received a wealth of information on Post 282 during an interview with Edwin G. Marshman, past Commander and current finance officer. We met at the Legion’s headquarters at 8 Patterson St., just off Harrison Ave., a building that has a pretty interesting history of its own.
The two-story structure looks like any of a number of wood-frame houses that line Harrison’s side streets, but this one had once been part of the Peter Hauck estate and Hauck Brewery, which had roots in town since the late 19th century. The Post’s HQ had actually been the old laundry building on the estate.
The Legion bought it early in 1941, two years after the group organized in January 1939. “Two months of frantic efforts followed to prepare the Post for its dedication” in May 1941, a Post history (written by Marshman) notes.
Pride of place in the social area today belongs to the beautifully crafted leather and gleaming-wood bar, built in 1951, where generations of veterans have raised a toast or two to absent friends, absent heroes.
Marshman, who will turn 85 on March 2, has all the Post’s important dates in his head. He should. He has been a member for 48 years and has written the commemorative histories for 282’s 30th, 40th, 50th and 65th anniversaries. And he’ll produce a brand new one for the 75th.
The Kearny resident, an Army veteran of the Korean War, also publishes a Post newspaper, The Legion Sentry, three times a year.
He is the proverbial walking history book of Post 282, and when he gazes around the room filled with photos and plaques and memorabilia, his pride in the Legion and its members, present and past, is evident.
In the commemorative booklet he wrote for the 65th anniversary in 2004, Marshman detailed the rise and fall, and rise again, of Post membership.
The period after World War II saw the biggest influx. Among the servicemen returning home were several former members of the Harrison High School Band, and they set about organizing a Post 282 marching band. From 1947 to the early ‘50s, “the band flourished, winning many prizes and competitions,” including the American Legion State Championship three years in a row: 1946, ‘47 and ‘48.
Peak membership was during WWII: 250. Today, the number is about 75.
A “slow but steady decline in membership” in veterans’ organizations in general occurred from the mid-’50s to the mid-’60s. It began to increase again as the Legion began actively recruiting Vietnam veterans who had “never received the recognition they so rightly deserved.”
Vet groups are now seeking those who served in the Gulf War, Iraq, Afghanistan and on other front lines in the war on terror.
“We are constantly trying to attract new members,” Marshman noted. “But the problem is the young fellas come home from service and find there is no work for them in this area, so they move on.”
But Harrison Post 282 under its current Commander, Kevin Kochell — as under the very first Commander, John Flynn, and all those in between — has lost none of its enthusiasm. Neither has the Ladies Auxiliary.
The Post has planned a full year of events for 2013, leading up to the 75th anniversary: Everything from a Mardi Gras fest, other parties and picnics, and a formal dinner scheduled for the fall. There will also be the solemn remembrances, such as the annual Memorial Day Mass at Holy Cross Church.
Keep an eye on the Around Town column in The Observer for specific events.
You can help the anniversary project by checking your attics and basements for military memorabilia, particularly from the 1950s to mid-’60s. For more information, contact Marshman at 201-998-0662.
Now, about that World War I veteran we hope to meet. He’s a former Commander, George Holschuh, U.S. Army.
During World War II, Marshman said, Holschuh used to go to the train station to see off the Harrison troops and hand each of the men $5. When they started coming home, he was back at the station to greet them –and sign them up for the American Legion.
His photo hangs on the Post wall along with those of other past Commanders. Well, it hangs there now. Time was, when the pictures were on another wall, George’s photo, and only his, kept falling down. Maybe he didn’t like the view from that wall. In any case, he would not stay put.
“We tried a dozen different ways to secure it, and nothing worked,” Marshman said.
Finally all the pictures were moved. So far, so good.
Except for the footsteps.
When the Post is nearly empty or very quiet, Marshman told us, there is the sound of someone pacing back and forth on the topfloor in the former meeting room. The empty former meeting room. Someone will go upstairs to check for the source of the sound, and there is never anyone up there.
The footsteps have been heard by many members, Marshman said. Because of the weirdness with the photo, they are sure it is George walking about – perhaps as a reminder to the members of the Legion’s mission to assist vets.
“I think he’s trying to tell us to keep doing the job we are supposed to do,” said Marshman.
One other thing, when Marshman led me over to the wall of photos, I had not yet heard one word about a ghost or the falling photo or even Holschuh’s name. But, among all the portraits, guess which one my eyes were drawn to first and immediately.
We have every intention of going back when the Post is nearly empty or very quiet and see if George makes his presence known. I hope so. He, like all veterans, deserves a personal “thank you” for his service to America and liberty.