THE ULTIMATE SACRIFICE: No one knew firefighter gave life in line of duty in 1941 … until cadets did research

Hamilton’s obituary.

KEARNY

This is the story of a hero. A man who fought in two wars and then dedicated two decades to serving and protecting the people of Kearny. He gave his life in that service. Yet, for more than 75 years, he and his ultimate sacrifice were forgotten. That is now being rectified.

When the last group of Kearny Fire Department recruits was at the Fire Academy, they and the rest of the cadets were given an assignment by an instructor, Capt. David Hamilton: Research line-of-duty deaths in the department they planned to join.

Every recruit class gets this assignment, noted Hamilton, who serves with the Nutley Fire Department. “It’s educational, and they can give their report to the families of the firefighters and to the department.”

The KFD cadets learned that two members of the township department Firefighter Emanuel “Manny” Gennace (Dec. 24, 1977) and Capt. Robert E. Ball (Nov. 12, 1973) had died in the line of duty. They reported same to Hamilton, and he told them, “There was actually a third.”

The KFD records officially listed only Ball and Gennace. And the Wall of Honor at KFD headquarters holds citations and photos of just them. So who was the third?

The forgotten hero was Firefighter Robert Hamilton, who suffered a fatal heart attack while battling a brush fire in the Kearny meadows on Jan. 13, 1941. He was 61 years old. And he happened to be the brother of Capt. Hamilton’s great-grandfather (also named David Hamilton). Which is why the Nutley officer knew something apparently no one else did. He had heard the story when he was a boy.

Chief Steve Dyl, current head of the KFD, is as mystified as anyone as to why Robert Hamilton had been overlooked for so long. “We are unaware of why Hamilton was not recognized as a line-of-duty death and we will be working to give him the recognition he deserves,” Dyl told The Observer.

He speculates that “a lot of the rules and regulations defining line-of-duty deaths were not in place in 1941.

The chief has already located, and shared with us, the January 1941 company journal that details the circumstances surrounding the fatality. Before computers ruled the world, departmental records were written by hand in large hardcover books about the size of old-fashioned scrapbooks. The following is the report inscribed in pen and ink by Capt. I. Oliver on Jan.  13 of that year:

During an alarm of fire at 2:28 p.m.a still alarm and telephone call from alarm dispatcher stated to send Engine No. 4 and Truck No. 3 to Hackensack Ave. near the Coca-Cola Co.

“Upon their arrival found brush burning and dangerously near and close to parked autos of unknown owners. [Hamilton’s obituary noted that these belonged to employees of the Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co., which property was also apparently threatened by the fast-moving flames.] Stretched in three lines of 2 1/2″ hose with hydrant pressure to stop spread of fire. 

“During course of fire, Fireman Sweet [we think that’s the name; handwriting was difficult to read] called to me stating Fireman R. Hamilton had collapsed at nozzle.

“Firemen Sweet, Lord and myself carried him to road (Hackensack Ave.), covered him with blanket and immediately sent in a call for police ambulance of 2nd Pct.

“Patrolman Campbell and Fireman Cliff Garrison arrived in ambulance and removed Fireman Hamilton to West Hudson Hospital. 

“On my return to quarters, I was informed that Fireman Hamilton had passed away in death.”

A subsequent journal entry gave the time of death as 3:34 p.m. At 4:05 p.m., KFD headquarters ordered that starting Jan. 14, its flag would fly at half-staff for 30 days.  

Hamilton had served with the KFD since Jan. 1, 1922.

But there is so much more to this man’s story. 

He was born in Belfast on June 23, 1878. [Yes, that would have made him older than 61 in 1941, but we can only go with dates provided in various records.] He was one of nine children of Robert and Mary McDowell Hamilton.

We do not know when the family immigrated to the U.S., but there is a New York State registration document dated October 1878 verifying Hamilton’s Belfast birth certificate, so it is likely he was brought here as an infant. It is thought that the family lived in Sullivan County, N.Y.

In 1898, when he was 20 years old, Hamilton was serving in the U.S. Army, and seeing combat in the Spanish-American War. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, he reenlisted at age 38 and spent 18 months overseas in that brutal conflict.

[Hamilton’s gravestone in Kearny’s Arlington Cemetery notes he was a “U.S. W. Vet. W.W. Vet.” When we visited with a friend, our companion asked, “Why doesn’t it say ‘W.W.I.?” Answer: Because in 1941, when he died, we didn’t expect a World War II.]

By 1910, Hamilton apparently had moved to Kearny. In 1926, he married his wife Lucy, and they resided at 13 Hillside Ave. They had no children. She died in 1971. [Regarding conflicting information: Most references give Lucy’s maiden name as Dobbins, but we came across one that says it was Palliser. Why?]

The first time we found the Hamiltons’ grave, the granite tombstone was nearly illegible. Set into the ground at about a 45-degree angle, the marker had absorbed decades of dirt. So we contacted Michael Perrone (you’ve read his name in this paper before) and asked for his help. Perrone, president of the Belleville Historical Society, is also a skilled stonemason who’s an expert at restoration. He devoted his time and labor free of charge to improve the Hamilton monument 1,000%.

Our thanks go out to him and also to Chief Dyl, Capt. David Hamilton, Josh Humphrey of the Kearny Public Library and Steven Thiele of the Thiele-Reid Funeral Home for their invaluable assistance in helping us research Robert Hamilton’s story.

Which is not over.

The KFD, probably early next year, is expected to add his name and image to the Wall of Honor and hold a long-overdue memorial.

Said Dyl, Many changes were made in how we fight fires in the fire service because of the supreme sacrifice made by firefighters killed in the line of duty. It is important we remember those members. No one is exempt in this line of business from being injured or killed.”

Karen Zautyk | Observer Correspondent