Remembering the fallen soldiers; Schwartz named Memorial Day Parade Grand Marshall; parade kicks off at 9:30 Monday
John Schwartz doesn't want to be considered a hero. He would much rather live the secluded and subdued life he has enjoyed in Weehawken ever since he moved here 50 years ago, four years after earning his release from the United States Air Force and six years after nearly losing his life as a pilot flying over Austria during World War II. "I'm the kind of guy who would shy away from publicity," said Schwartz, now 82 years old, last week. "There's no way I want any recognition for what happened to me." But Schwartz endured an incredible series of events years ago - and Monday, he will be honored as the Grand Marshall of the annual Weehawken Memorial Day Parade. Schwartz was a captain in the Air Force during World War II, when the bomber plane he was flying, a B-24 Liberator Heavy Bomber, was hit by enemy fire in 1945. The plane caught fire and Schwartz suffered serious and life-threatening burns to his face, hands and legs. "I was unconscious when I hit the ground," Schwartz said. "I don't remember hitting the ground at all. I guess I dropped down like a sack of potatoes. The Good Lord was with me that day. It was the beginning of a series of miracles for me, like I had a guardian angel watching over me." When Schwartz was found in the waters of Austria, he was taken to a hospital, but then was a prisoner in an Austrian POW camp for eight months. "I was in the camp, Stalag 17, but it was nothing like the movie," Schwartz said. "But I was a prisoner in that famous camp." Schwartz said that he wasn't mistreated in any fashion during his stay in the prison camp, but he also wasn't permitted to leave. Doctors did manage to treat his injuries and he recovered while in the camp, but was detained. "Maybe some of the other camps mistreated the soldiers," Schwartz said. "But I wasn't harmed at all. I was kept in a segregated room. That's all. And I probably would have been in the camp longer, if it weren't for the end of the war." Still, after V-E Day, Schwartz remained an active member of the Air Force, earning his discharge in 1947, a recipient of several medals of bravery, including the Purple Heart, the Air Medal and the Prisoner of War Medal. Schwartz, born and raised in Jersey City, returned home from the war and married his wife of nearly 40 years, Marion, and moved to Weehawken, where they raised their four children. Schwartz got a job with Conrail Freight Lines and remained with the company for 42 years. Then, he retired. "I was with the company before the war and I went back afterwards," Schwartz said. "When I returned home, I was 30 years old. I was too old to go back to school, so I went to work and made a living. I have no regrets at all." Schwartz has remained in Weehawken ever since his arrival in 1951. His wife passed away four years ago and he tries to remain as active as possible with his five grandchildren. Although Schwartz was a little humbled that he was selected by Memorial Day Parade Grand Chairman James Hams to serve as Grand Marshall, he certainly doesn't want to obscure the real reason that the Memorial Day Parade is held. "It's very important," Schwartz said. "There are a lot of people who don't remember what Memorial Day truly represents. In the mission I was in, two lads lost their lives. That's something I always remember. There was a gigantic sacrifice made by our servicemen, so that we can all live in the same manner and style that we've been accustomed to. People don't pay enough attention to that reason. It's losing its meaning a little to some people. It means a lot to keep it alive." The humble Schwartz added, "When Jim Hams asked me to be the Grand Marshall, I figured that they were running out of people. But it's absolutely an honor for me. I wasn't really gung-ho about it at first, but I'm honored now. I take pride in the fact that I served my country." Hams believes that Schwartz is a worthy recipient of the Grand Marshall honor. "He's a great man and a great honoree," said Hams, who has helped to coordinate the Weehawken Memorial Day parade for the last 56 years. "It was our turn (the Veterans of Foreign War Oulton-Kraft Post 1923) to pick the Grand Marshall, and John was a great choice. It's an honor to have him as one of our members, and it's great that we're able to honor such a great veteran." Once again, Hams has organized a top-flight array for the annual parade. He has secured the services of two marching bands, namely the Weehawken High School and Memorial High School from neighboring West New York. There will be a parade of police and fire vehicles, two floats (one from Weehawken High School and the other from the Weehawken Senior Citizens), both the Weehawken Police and North Hudson Regional Fire and Rescue marching units, and all the dignitaries of the town, namely Mayor Richard Turner and the Town Council. Also, there will be plenty of representation from the township's youth, namely all the teams from the entire Weehawken Recreation department, as well as four different Girl Scout and Brownie troops from the township. Of course, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the American Legion Post 18 (who will feature Frederick Bastian as the Grand Marshall's Aide) and the Weehawken Elks Lodge will be represented as well. Starts in the morning
First assembly for the parade will take place at 9 a.m. Monday, May 29 at the corner of Highpoint and Gregory Avenue, with the parade slated to kick off at 9:30 a.m. The route will take the parade from the starting point to Maple Street, across to Ridgeley Place, then to Park Avenue until 49th Street. The parade will continue across 49th Street east to Boulevard East, where it will turn south and head for the final point, the Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument near Hamilton Plaza. Ceremonies there, with the presentation of colors and wreaths, will be held at approximately 11 a.m. "I can't march much this year, because I'm facing foot surgery," Hams said. "But it should be a nice parade once again. We're one of the only towns that keeps the tradition of the Memorial Day parade alive. It really means a lot to us." Turner especially respects the importance of the parade. "It's one of the activities that I personally look forward to the most," Turner said. "It's our way of honoring the past and the present and remembering those who gave the supreme sacrifice of their lives. It's important to make sure that the young people of the town get involved, because we have to teach the young people the importance of what our veterans did." Turner said that the day is especially important this year, because a long-time fixture at the parade, Frank Crossan, has passed away during the last year. "As people pass on, we try to work with the next group of veterans," Turner said. "It's important to have a tradition like this one. It's an event for every age group. And we have such a majestic setting, with the best veterans' monument in the state and a great view. It's a grand way to honor our vets." Schwartz agrees. "It really is ideal," he said, while sitting on a bench next to the site where the parade will end. "I'm happy that they're honoring me." And it's an honor very well deserved.