Published May 28, 2011
BRIDGEWATER, N.J. -- As the number of World War II veterans continues to dwindle, communities around the state are taking notice.
In 2010, New Jersey was home to 55,400 World War II veterans; about half as many as there were in 2005, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs. The servicemen and women who were 18 at the war's end, in 1945, are now 84.
One of New Jersey's best barometers for this shrinking veteran population might be in Monroe, where more than half of the 40,000-plus population is made up of seniors.
When resident Jerome Setzer first joined the local Veterans of Foreign War Post 262 in 1995, he became acquainted with about eight other World War II veterans, like himself. Today, Setzer, the post commander, said only four of the eight remain.
"Most of them have passed away," he said, adding that of the few left in the township's various veterans organizations, many are in frail condition.
What separates World War II veterans from the rest in Setzer's mind is the sense of duty. They are from a generation that didn't question what needed to be done.
"It was just an accepted thing, that's what was in store for you," he said of serving your country.
"You accepted it and went on."
The day after high school graduation, an 18-year-old Setzer was on a train bound for boot camp.
The drafted U.S. Army private never saw combat during that war, but that's not to say Setzer wasn't prepared for the worst. He was training for an invasion of Japan that never happened.
"At the time, they expected 500,000 casualties during the invasion," he said. "One of my platoon sergeants told us to look to both sides because two of the three guys were not going to come back."
Ninety-two-year-old Plainfield resident Dr. Harold Yood counts himself among those lucky few who made it back home.
Today, he browses the obituaries daily, scouting out one World War II veteran after another, he said.
For those who've discovered the retired physician's blog, "Doc's Potpourri," every now and then they'll get a glimpse of his Battle of the Bulge days, a wintry 1944 monthlong, counter-offensive launched by Nazis in Belgium, France and Luxembourg, during which America suffered 75,000 casualties but Allied forces prevailed.
Drafted as a battalion surgeon in the Airborne division at 24 in 1944, Yood wasn't accustomed to life as a soldier. Quicker than he imagined, he was piecing combat soldiers back together from mortar shells and bullet wounds, sometimes as close as 1,000 yards from the front lines, he said.
"I couldn't even keep track of them," Yood said of his battlefield patients. "When you're in combat, you work 24/7. You slept when you could."
About 15 years ago, Yood said, he wrote down some of his war-time memoirs at the insistence of his family.
"We're getting older and we're dying. I think that it's probably of interest to family members to know these things. But I'm sure they've been embellished by everyone who writes them," he said with a laugh.
Communities around the state are seeing to it that these veterans and their stories become permanent fixtures, long after they are gone.
In South Brunswick, high school students have teamed with the Office on Aging and the senior organization Aging in Place Partnerships to see the mission through.
Over the past two years, students have documented the stories of more than 30 local veterans, most of whom are from the World War II era, Office on Aging Director Christine Wildemuth said.
From the new partnership, and with the help of township social worker Caryl Greenberg, photographic displays, videos and written records, as well as a scripted play (partly based on these veterans' experiences) have been compiled, Wildemuth said.
Additionally, township officials have begun a campaign to properly honor its late veterans, some of whom lost their lives while serving during in World War II, by naming streets for them.
"They are very important parts of history," Wildemuth said. "It's important to honor what they did."