Commander Glen J. Flora moves through the veterans’ meeting hall with quiet reverence, walls lined with the memorabilia from generations of American conflicts.
“This place is like a chapel,” he said. “Some veterans just come here and sit. Some even cry.”
Even with people crowding the other rooms of the Joyce-Herbert Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 226 on West Ninth Street, this space seems sacred, walls decorated with photos of local heroes dating back to World War I and mannequins wearing the actual uniforms worn by soldiers, sailors, marines and others who served their country.
The names on each plaque read like a who’s-who of Bayonne families, from former Mayor Dennis Collins to the late Medal of Honor winner, Stephen Gregg.
Flora points to pictures in one exhibit of pilots once listed as missing in action, noting that one is still unaccounted for while the other man’s remains were recently found.
There is pain in his voice as he speaks, part of the reaction some veterans get when they come here and see artifacts from a time that time in their lives, hats or badges, or the canteen or grenade they wore on their belts.
Thanks to gifts from veterans, local and far away, as well as family members of veterans, Bayonne has a very comprehensive museum of military artifacts covering every war from the American Civil War to the two contemporary wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Each inch is a testimony to the past, filled with ribbons, medals, models or photographs, a three dimensional snap shot of a particular time and place.
Flora pauses before each exhibit the way Catholic school children might pause before stations of the cross. Each place bears the stories of people who went to war – some of whom came back changed or not at all, all of whom have won their small monument in this hall of heroes.
“We’re trying to get school kids to come here,” Flora said. “I’ve contacted all the schools, but so far only one school has come.”
Open for about two years, the museum has been called Bayonne’s best kept secret. While this is a complement to how much is here, it is also a concern since this place contains the history of sacrifice Flora believes every child should know.
Names jump out from the past such as Dr. Sal La Pilusa, who served in a MASH unit during the Korean War, and less familiar names such as Genevieve Blyskal, who was an early pioneer for women in the military.
Although Flora was instrumental in promoting the idea of a military museum, he credits fellow VFW member Joseph Kennedy with pulling many of the pieces together in order to make it work.
“I asked him to do something, and he being a perfectionist put this together in about six months,” Flora said.
“I asked him to do something, and he, being a perfectionist, put this together in about six months.” – Glen Flora
Nearly everything is authentic, including some parts of the Civil War uniform. There are even a few items dealing with civil defense and the personal history veterans.
Herman Shanker, for instance, has two uniforms on display from his military service as a pilot of a B-24 bomber. He was shot down twice in the South Pacific during WWII. The second time, his crew encountered sharks.
He kept the clock from the first plane and a flashlight from the second. Both items are on display along with mannequins wearing his flying gear.
At 94, Shanker commands the Jewish War Veteran post in Bayonne. His group meets at the museum.
The collection comes from a variety of places, veterans donating their own gear, family members donating items from their deceased loved one, and some found items.
Flora said he found some pieces such as a radio from the past thrown out as trash.
One veteran, prior to his death, rolled into the museum in a wheelchair to donate items.
The museum, of course, shows images of the former Military Ocean Terminal of Bayonne, a key base in supplying military efforts from World War II through the Persian Gulf War in the early 1990s.
Some of the items recall groups that most people had forgotten, such as the Bayonne Diving School in a photograph from 1963.
Bayonne has a number of historic distinctions, but few cities can boast they produced two Medal of Honor recipients: Michael Oreska, who is still living, and Stephen Gregg, who passed away a few years ago. They both have a place of honor in this museum.
“We’re hoping to get the Medal of Honor here,” Flora said. “But we have to install an alarm and provide insurance.”
While Bayonne made an effort to become the home port of the historic Battleship New Jersey, few realize that Bayonne had a warship named after the city, and the museum has both models of the ship sunk during the war, but also one of the American flags that flew over it.
The museum also gives space to the Merchant Marines, an often overlooked branch of the service.
The museum also has several displays of enemy artifacts from the various wars, including Japanese, German and Italian items from WWII, as well as photos of the first Bayonne casualty from WWI, whose grave was recently found just off Route 440.
The Veterans’ Museum is located at the Joyce-Herbert VFW Post 226 16 W. 19th Street. For more information about hours or to schedule a visit call: 201-858-1416.