Montclair held its annual Memorial Day observance in Edgemont Memorial Park, which was developed as a public space in 1925 to honor the veterans of World War I (then called the World War of the Great War). Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary and Montclair resident Jeh Johnson was the featured speaker, and retired U.S. Air Force Major William Horn, a Montclair resident since 2010, spoke about his experiences in Vietnam.
Johnson, the fourth DHS Secretary, was introduced by Mayor Robert Jackson, who cited Johnson’s many accomplishments, including his service as a federal prosecutor, General Counsel of the Air Force, and General Counsel of the Defense Department. Johnson said his proudest distinction was to be a Montclair resident. When he first came here to look at houses, he said, “I knew this was going to be home.” He praised his adopted hometown as an “urbane suburb” that embraced progressive values.
Johnson urged the townspeople to remember the sacrifices that servicemen who served their country, noting that less than one percent of the nation’s population is represented in the military.
“We cannot fail to remember and honor those who were willing to serve our nation in uniform to defend the rest of us,” he said. “We cannot forget those who gave their lives in sacrifice for the rest of us.” He added that service personnel may have their own diverse opinions about the war or the operations they engage in, yet they are always prepared to sacrifice.
Johnson singled out the dedication of Army Green Beret Staff Sergeant Scott Studenmund, the son of a professor at Occidental College, where Johnson spoke a week earlier and received an honorary degree. Sgt. Studenmund, a Bronze Star Medal recipient, signed up for two tours of duty in Afghanistan and was killed in June 2014; he received an honorary degree from Occidental posthumously.
“On days like this, we must continue to honor their memory and tell their families we will never forget them, “Johnson said.
Major Horn, who appeared via an invitation from First Ward Councilor William Hurlock, spoke of his service in the Air Force. He had mostly flown transport aircraft in the service of astronauts and generals as well as moving cargo and military personnel before flying a helicopter in Vietnam. Major Horn said that his original to provide support for the electronic anti-infiltration barrier system promoted by then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, flying up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail to set up the electronic sensors to gather data from enemy movements; instead, the operation was transferred to F-4 fighters when casualties became too great, and helicopter pilots like Major Horn were to provide cover for Greet Beret troops on the ground. In one incident, Major Horn recalled, a Green Beret unit was pinned down by the Viet Cong on a hillside and running low on ammunition, food and water, in bad weather deemed risky for flying.
Horn recalled that, as the lead pilot is his formation of helicopters, he broke away and into an opening in the cloud cover directly above the point where the Green Berets were trapped. As he descended and came to a hover, he remembered, the first he saw on the face of the Green Beret team leader was “the largest and happiest smile I had ever seen on everyone.” Under heavy fire, he rescued the men and escaped.
“I don’t remember the guy’s name,” the major said, “but I will never forget that smile.”
Other men, Major Horn noted, weren’t so lucky. He remembered three fellow pilots, his best friends “Bear” Barnett, Jerry Ziehe, and Harry “Pepper” Coates. They all suffered different fates. Barnett developed “target fixation” by focusing too much on his target and never pulled out of a dive while aiming for his target. Coates was killed in action on his second mission. And Ziehe was killed while on leave; his C-47 transport plane crashed due to mechanical failure en route to Tokyo.
There was also the participation of the “future of Montclair,” as Mayor Jackson called the children in the ceremony. Glenfield Middle School students Carrington Brooks and Deven Sukhdeo spoke of how the town developed Edgemont Park as a memorial to World War I veterans in 1925, having raised $85,000 from school children in two weeks, and they also paid tribute to Montclair residents Langston Perkins and William Allen who fought and died in World War II. (Perkins was the first black solider from Montclair to die in the war; Allen, a D-Day participant, was killed in Belgium in December 1944.) And Montclair High School student Brittany Hurlock, daughter of the First Ward councilor, sang the national anthem.