As Memorial Day approaches, it’s time to remember that the greatest gift our veterans have given us is the freedom to forget. The thoroughness of their success has extinguished the daily reminder that what we value has been at times threatened within an inch of its life.
But there are three gentlemen who never forget this. You can find them nearly every Sunday eating dinner together at Fitzgerald’s 1928 where we refer to them fondly as the Joint Chiefs of Staff. James Waters, US Army, age 95; Kenneth Underwood, US Navy, age 85; and Dan Martin, US Air Force Strategic Command, age 84.
There is not enough space here to tell even a small part of one of their stories. Mr. James Waters has lived in Glen Ridge since 1958. Despite being stone deaf in one ear, he managed to talk his way past the army medical examiners. In 1944 he took shrapnel in the leg during the Allied invasion of Italy. He remembers walking for many miles on the wounded leg through the Italian countryside vivid to this day in his mind. He spent his professional career in finance at Chase, Jersey Bell, Prudential Insurance and finally, Irving Trust for 28 years where he had an office in the Empire State Building. At age 58, he left the corporate world to open his own financial firm. He has four children and four grand-children. He buried two loving wives. “God knows why I’m still here,” he says. I’m sure God does.
Mr. Ken Underwood has always had a Glen Ridge address. He lived at 42 Hamilton Road for 42 years. “How’s that for symmetry?” His greatest military moment and it’s not him but Dan Martin who characterized it that way, took place aboard an aircraft carrier in the Straits of Formosa monitoring the final Korean cease-fire. He noticed a light in the darkness signaling that one of 12 destroyers had failed to turn in formation heading towards certain collision and death. His actions averted the disaster. He has memories of climbing Mount Fuji and the sudden presence of hundreds of Japanese pilgrims for whom the mountain has religious significance. Mr. Underwood is an architect by profession. In town, he did work on the Congregational Church and other structures. He used to commute daily by train to his office in Philadelphia. His proudest professional accomplishment is the building that houses judicial offices in Harrisburg, PA. He has one son, also an architect who lives in North Carolina. His wife is ill. He tends to her every day.
Mr. Dan Martin is a master of remembering. Maybe that’s why his branch of the service was Air Force Strategic Command where his specialty was reconnaissance. He graduated in 1950 from Rutgers with a degree in political science and a love of history. He flew 27 missions using advanced techniques to detect enemy radar signals and target their sources for fighter jets and bombers to follow. The element of surprise was paramount, so his missions were deliberately scheduled in bad weather under dangerous conditions when such flights were least expected by the enemy. So he developed an attitude and a mantra he holds even to this day: “Every morning when I wake up it’s… ‘Hey, enjoy, enjoy’… You’ve got to be a survivor.” An attorney by profession, Dan is a life-long NJ resident who has lived in Glen Ridge since 1987. He’s a grandfather with two sons and a daughter scattered across the country who he calls “my best friends.”
You can find him with his next best friends Sunday evenings at Fitzgerald’s 1928 – it’s not about flag-waving as much as it is about the feeling that comes from completing a mission, of having done something significant, the camaraderie of now gentle warriors. Approach them. They love to talk.
There is a 30,000 word interview of Daniel Martin in the Rutgers Oral History archives http://bit.ly/1jgR93e. It ends with a poem he sent home back then, excerpted here:
A Night Mission
A long night of flying straight to target
Buckled and cramped
Tense and waiting
Staring at controls…
Bright metal wings
Not yet shining
Lifting and falling
Slowly against the raw horizon…
Streaks of purple now
Some orange, some red
One ragged yellow-edged cloud
Far away there
The end of the long black night…
The dark and solid mass
We’ve lived through
Will soon burn away
And in the new azure morning
We shall again become fearless