At our Cranford Memorial park there stands a granite monument with 86 names of Cranford Hometown heroes. Heroes in every sense of the word, these men left the comforts of home in our lovely town to answer a call to duty; each one paid the highest price a person can pay in defense of freedom for a country that they never would return to.
Each year on Memorial Day their names are read with ultimate reverence and respect by veterans from the VFW post 335. Ten years ago as a Boy Scout leader I would stand with our boys and listen as Bob Greco, a World War 2 veteran himself, would walk to the podium. He would say something like “ I am going to read the names of the World War 2 war dead, as I do, you will just be hearing names, for me, I will see their faces. You see between the years of 1941 and 1945 fifty seven young men from our town went to war, and never came back. These were my friends; my team mates my class mates. I knew almost every one of them. One of them was my best friend that I went to war with.” He would then, with amazing feeling read the 57 names. Each year it was said a little different but meant the same to me, I remember the hairs on my arm coming to attention as a feeling of emotion came over me. It set the tone for my Memorial Day each year. Bob Greco is gone now and so are most all of the people that remember the faces of those World War 1 and 2 soldiers on the monument.
With my sons now Eagle Scouts and in college I found myself with time that I could dedicate to a new vocation. I volunteered to join the Memorial Day Parade Committee. At my first meeting I expressed my want to help identify the men on the monuments. You see my job for the parade as the Boy Scout coordinator was to appoint boy and girl scouts to carry the “Blue Star Flags”. Each flag represented a fallen Cranford soldier. There were 86 of them, the same number of names on the plaque, fifteen World War 1, fifty seven World War 2, two Korean War and twelve for Vietnam. As the names were read from the podium the scouts would dip the flag in memory of the hero. It was a beautiful segment of the ceremony.
I thought if we could embroider the name of the soldier that the flag represented it would go a long way to identify the man that the flag represented. It was determined that the embroidery would not be the best way to personalize the flags. A streamer embossed with name was created and we all thought it achieved the purpose the best. Although it would seem that my goal was achieved, I wasn’t totally satisfied that we had exactly reached it.
At the Memorial Day ceremony that year I met a Vietnam veteran named Mike Sapara that was introduced to me by a mutual friend. He thanks me for the work we had done with identifying the blue star flags. He explained that his two classmates were on our honor role. I invited him to my home for a Memorial Day picnic that we host yearly. He told the story of his two buddies to all that would listen in my backyard. Without much time as I hosted the barbeque, I asked him back for dinner later in the week. He told me his story. You can read the accounts of our conversation in the first story in our series about Raymond Ashnault and Joseph Minnock.
As I heard Mike’s stories and turned them into the first Cranford 86 article. I felt those hairs on my forearm stand up again, just like when I heard Joe Greco’s speech 10 years earlier. Mike provided me with photos of his buddy Ray, but had none of Joe Minnock. In fact, no one had a picture of Joe Minnock. I reached out for the Historical Society for help. Where they didn’t have a picture of Joe, they did know of a member that was working on finding a picture of him to answer a request from The NJ Vietnam memorial at The PNC Art Center. That member was Steve Glazer a retired Army Lieutenant Colonel from the Vietnam era. We weren’t at first successful in finding the illusive Joseph Minnock photo, but we did find a mutual passion of telling the stories of these 86 men. Steve had recently received a State award for writing a book identifying and researching (60) residents of the area that what would be Cranford, that served in the Civil War. He told me that he always thought someone should take on this project and he would be happy to help me in my project. With his help we would start selecting one hero a month and through internet searches using anscestory.com and several other websites as well as many techniques that Steve had used in his after-Army career as a patent attorney, we would put the pieces together to paint a picture of a hero from birth to his premature demise. Each profile being topped with the face of the hero, so that the people of Cranford could, just like Bob Greco, see the faces. My longtime friends Joe & Tina Renna offered me their newspaper, The Cranford Monthly as a monthly vehicle to bring our stories into every home and business in town. In our first year as writing partners we told 12 stories and most importantly introduced 12 faces.
In addition to the stories, we thought we could go farther. I had seen many towns that had been lining their downtown streets with vertical banners of their hometown heroes, attached to light poles. We thought we might do the same. We approached the many Cranford charitable organizations and asked some prominent citizens to help me fund the idea. Lastly we thought a book of our first twelve stories would be a nice souvenir for the Memorial Day ceremony where we planned on unveiling our first 12 banners as we dedicated them in memory of our inaugural group of heroes. We published 125 books and distributed them at the ceremony for a token donation; by the end of the ceremony all the books were gone.
After the ceremony many Cranford towns’ people came forward and congratulated us on our project. A few residents even offered to sponsor the hero’s banner; some were residents of Cranford streets that were named in honor of our Cranford 86. Another man, a former Air Force officer named Stuart Rosenthal, offered to join our research and writing team. He has proven himself to be a talented researcher as well. Together our team has taken on the challenge to continue our journey through American history to complete the stories to honor these 86 brave men and make their faces recognizable to the people of Cranford that live in privilege by the sacrifice of these men that lived here before them.