How it All Started

How the Cranford 86 Project Began
As a member of the newly formed sub-committee of the Memorial Day Parade to help give identity to the 86 Cranford residents that gave their life on a foreign battle field, I have started researching the stories of who these 86 young men were. Using google and the internet I started doing searches of some of the most recent names on our Memorial Day program. I was surprised how little information there was available. Even from the wars that were fought in my lifetime there were not as many quality photographs and detailed information available. I started thinking that the only way we can fill in all these blanks was to reach out to families and friends of these local heroes. We need to reach out to our community. I know the stories we need are still fresh in the minds and hearts of our town people. Enter Mike Sapara. Mike is a friend and former co-worker of a neighbor of mine. The morning of the Memorial Day parade my neighbor called me and asked if her friend from Bayonne that served in Viet Nam and graduated Cranford High School could march in our parade, I said sure. Tell him to come down. He could march with Rebuilding Warriors, the organization that trains service dogs for veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. As most know, our parade was cancelled due to inclement weather. At the conclusion of the indoor ceremony at the community center, my neighbor and a man in a vintage Viet-Nam uniform approached me. Mary Roberts introduced me to my new friend Mike Sapara. He made Memorial Day 2016 special to me. He shared some information about his Viet-Nam tour and his Cranford High School class mates that went to Viet-Nam and didn’t come home again. He had my attention. I invited him to VFW reception and back to my Memorial Day gathering that we have had since 2001 at my home. As we do each year at 3:00 we respect the wishes of The President with a moment of silence, followed by taps by our neighbor Frank Grasso. At this point I would usually share some thought with the gathered friends about the meaning of Memorial Day. We especially talk to the young people attending. I usually share some words from the Memorial Day ceremony speakers. This year I quoted Jay Boxwell the commander of Cranford’s VFW. He said, speaking of the Cranford 86, “I didn’t know them, but I know I owe them”. Then Mike took over. He stood in front of the gathering and held up his photo album with pictures from Viet-Nam and images of him and his classmates. The pictures of Raymond Ashnault, a 20 year old Cranford resident, one of our 86, was the one that touched our hearts. Ray perished under in friendly fire to his tank in a defensive position just one day after returning to action from a short hospital stay on August 19th, 1969. As Mike looked at my high school senior son’s group of friends, which were locked in to every word that crossed his lips, he asked “how many of you are 18 or 19”? Ten or 12 raised their hands. At your age my classmates were in country in Viet-Nam, two of them never came back to Cranford. You could hear a pin drop. I think they got the story of Memorial Day better than I could ever have relayed it. As the gathering progressed Mike had a chance to share his stories with all those that would listen. His stories were heartfelt and real. He was the talk of the party. His platoon was the same one depicted in the movie Forest Gump. He has survived two bouts with cancer, PTSD and several issues resulting from Agent Orange exposure. He is very proud of his service in Viet-Nam and feels that our efforts there were just. He feels like many service men, that given more time they would have been victorious. Being the host and the cook, I didn’t get as much a chance to hear the stories, so I invited Mike back for dinner the following week. He arrived with a duffle bag full of memories, his old flak jacket and helmet. My kids were amazed at how heavy they were. He said it was part of the 100 lbs. of gear that they wore everywhere they went. Being Boy Scouts that carried 70 lb. back packs for 100 miles in a week-long trek in Colorado two years back, we could empathize. The average day Mike shared was 100 to 120 degrees and 100% humidity. Most days they waded through rivers and rice paddies, during monsoon season they were wet most of the time, as they walked through mosquitoes and leeches. He shared more stories of some of the Cranford 86 that he knew about. Joe Minnock left High School before graduation and was killed just weeks after entering Viet-Nam. He died at the age of 18, he was the first casualty from Cranford. Mike was a senior in high school and remembers Joe Minnocks passing. He perished in a violent battle for the Idrang Valley in 1965. This was the battle depicted in the movie “We were Soldiers” with Mel Gibson. Mike says he thought about Joe’s death on many occasions while in battles during his tour. The story that enlightened me the most was that of how he and his friends came to join the service to support the war effort. He explained that unlike what most people hear about the negative sentiment of the American people to the Viet Nam war, that everyone in the early days of the war were totally “gung ho” about the effort to stop communism and to fight for our country. He and all of his friends joined voluntarily, in fact the volunteerism was so high that there was a 6-year wait to enter the Navy, Air Force or Coast Guard. They wanted to be like their dads and go off to war for the honor of their families. So they joined the Army. It wasn’t until they were in, that sentiments changed to the Viet Nam soldier. He told a story about getting into a cab on his first moments back in the states. With a uniform full of ribbons, a cabby asked him if he just got back from Nam? He said yes he did. The cabby said who cares. He said “It was a tough time for all of us, but it was better than not coming back at all.” For me, my new friend Mike Sapara was the door to information of 2 of the Cranford 86. If you know anyone that could help fill in the blanks of missing information of these hometown heroes. We urge you to reach out to us through the email on Facebook at Cranford86.

(above) Joe Minnock

(above) Mike Sapara, Cranford High School Class of 1966, and Viet Nam Veteran.