‘Heaven, Hell or Hoboken’

By Karen Zautyk

Last month in this space, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into that bloody maelstrom now called World War I. Back then, there was no expectation there would ever be a World War II. Much less, that it would happen in just two decades. In fact, the 1914-’18 butchery, the “Great War,” was actually believed to be “The War to End All Wars.”

To the best of our knowledge if we’re wrong, let us know not much is taught in school these days about WWI, unless one is enrolled in some era-specific college history course. Maybe at West Point. This is an inexcusable shame, since WWI gave birth to the world as we know it now. It changed everything.

Luckily, there are some folks who not only are aware of this, but are determined to not let it be forgotten. Even if one puts aside the technological, sociological, political and economic tsunamis it triggered, one should respect its memory simply because of all the lives that were sacrificed.

A couple of weeks ago, tribute to those lives and to the American soldiers who survived was paid at a special ceremony in Hoboken. Why there?

Because that Hudson County community in the early 20th century, a major port played a crucial role in the war. 

As noted by the Hoboken Historical Museum: “When America formally entered the war on April 6, 1917, Hoboken’s waterfront became central to the war effort as the government seized the German ships docked there and commandeered the piers, which became the army’s port of embarkation for American troops.”

From the spring of ’17 through the end of ’18, some 2 million U.S. soldiers “passed through Hoboken on their way to or from Europe.”

“Near the end of the war, Gen. John Pershing rallied the troops for a swift conclusion to the war with the rallying cry, ‘Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken.’” 

Meaning that by Christmas, they’d be in one of those places.

Tragically, far too many never saw the home-port destination. 

On April 26 (the April 6 date was cancelled due to torrential rain), the Hudson County Executive’s Office of Veterans’ Affairs, Hudson County History Advocates and the City of Hoboken sponsored a centennial ceremony at Pier A Park. Centerpiece was the the WWI Memorial, dedicated in 1925 to the “valiant American Expeditionary Forces who embarked from this port to participate in the World War 1917 – 1918.”

Political and community leaders, veterans, Hoboken High School’s band and chorus and the Hudson County Sheriff’s Color Guard were among those taking part, as was Robert Foster, director of the Hoboken Historical Museum, which has been doing yeoman’s work to educate the public on WWI and its effects on the city, the county, the country and the world.

See www.hobokenmuseum.org for more information. 

You might have missed the lectures, but the books and authors associated with them offer an opportunity for valuable self-education.

One of the topics your correspondent intends to delve into something (among many things) about which I knew absolutely nothing is the war’s repercussions on certain residents:

“Hoboken was one of the most German cities in New Jersey, with nearly 26% of its 70,000 residents being either German-born or the children of German immigrants. All German-born residents were required to register as ‘enemy aliens,’ and many lost their jobs, homes and businesses. Some were interned on Ellis Island during the war.” 

Who knew?

There is much we should know, not just about our Hudson County neighbor’s wartime role, but about the war itself. It’s about remembrance. In the words of the poet:

If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.”

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