Three Glen Rock Heroes

As part of Glen Rock's Quasquicentennial Celebration (125 years since Incorporation in 1894), I spoke about three of Glen Rock's heroes at the kick-off event last weekend.  Here is the text of my talk, for those unable to attend last Saturday, September 7, 2019.

 

Thank you for coming out today to celebrate Glen Rock's 125th Birthday!  On September 14th, 1894, Glen Rock was incorporated as an independent borough.  At that time, there were approximately 600 people living on 100 farms on the lands that became Glen Rock.

 

Today I am going to talk a little bit about three Glen Rock residents who did heroic things when our country needed them the most: Ludovicus van Iersel, a Dutch citizen, who enlisted in the U.S. Army during World War I and earned 15 medals for valor, including the Medal of Honor; Thomas L. Hawkins, educated in the Glen Rock Schools and Ridgewood High School, who enlisted in the Army Air Forces during World War II and served with honor as one of the famed Tuskegee Airmen; and William McHale, who as a merchant ship captain in 1940, before the U S. entered the War against Hitler, successfully sneaked $4.5 Million-worth of Swedish gold out from under the noses of the Nazis in Norway.

 

 Ludovicus van Iersel

 

Ludovicus van Iersel lived a life that was the stuff of Hollywood movies.  In early 1917 he made his first journey to the United States as an employee of a Norwegian shipping company.  While en route, in the English Channel, his ship was in the vicinity of a British vessel that had just been torpedoed by a German U-boat.  Ludovicus rigged a boatswain's chair to lift twenty-seven British sailors from the water to safety, and as a result he was awarded the first of his many medals - this one, a medal for lifesaving at sea, given in the name of King George V of Great Britain.  Once his  ship docked in New York, Ludovicus jumped ship and decided to stay here.  He settled in New Jersey, renting space in a private home on Doremus Avenue in Glen Rock.  He found work driving a coal truck for the Vanderbeck Company in Ridgewood. 

 

A few months later, the U.S. declared war on Germany and Ludovicus signed on as a volunteer, filing his intention to become a U.S. citizen at the same time. He spoke fluent German and French in addition to his native Dutch, but he spoke no English. This was less of a problem than you might imagine since Dutch was still spoken in much of Bergen County, and his employer was of Dutch heritage. The Army was a different matter, though, as the lack of English made it difficult for him to understand and follow orders; he was therefore assigned to the kitchens. He had an aptitude for language, however, and after just four months in the kitchens scrubbing pots and pans, he had picked up enough English to receive a promotion to Corporal and was reassigned to the 2nd Infantry Division serving in France. His unit would see battle at Verdun, Belleau Forest and the Argonne.

 

His leadership and bravery were quickly noticed; he earned the first of his two Croix de Guerre medals by retrieving seventeen men from “No Man’s Land”. He earned the second one by using his language skills to convince a German officer to surrender along with sixty of his men. Van Iersel would later say that he probably would not have attempted this if he had realized how badly his own men were outnumbered! He was promoted to Sergeant.

 

On a reconnaissance mission at Mouzon, France, on the evening of November 9th in 1918, Sgt. Van Iersel led a party across a damaged bridge in the face of heavy machine gun fire. He fell through a trap in the bridge and ended up in the fast-flowing river. Even still, he was able to swim to the German side and completed his mission, which was to determine the size of the German forces at that location. He returned and reported this valuable information to his commanding officer, who then made the decision to move his battalion away from the impending attack. For this act of perseverance and valor, Ludovicus van Iersel was awarded the Medal of Honor – the highest and most prestigious personal military honor bestowed by the U.S. Van Iersel was credited with saving the lives of 1,000 men by his actions. According to his obituary in the Los Angeles Times newspaper, Ludovicus received his Medal of Honor from General John “Black Jack” Pershing.

 

It is believed that Ludovicus van Iersel was the first non-citizen ever awarded the U.S. Medal of Honor. He finally received his U.S. Citizenship six months after receiving his Medal of Honor. Following the Armistice, he visited his home in the Netherlands for a little while before returning stateside. He returned to New Jersey for a short time, changed his first name to Louis and moved to California in 1920 where he worked for the city of Los Angeles. At the start of World War II, Louis and his three sons volunteered to serve. He proudly wore his World War I uniform, bedecked with medals and ribbons, to his induction. Louis was turned down by the Army due to his age but he talked his way into the Marine Corps and saw duty in the South Pacific. He said that the Marines knew a good PR opportunity when they saw it! Louis van Iersel passed away in 1987 at 93 years of age and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery; he was survived by 3 sons, 8 grandchildren, 17 great-grandchildren and 1 great-great-grandchild.

 

 Flight Officer Thomas L. Hawkins seated in his P-51 Mustang, the "Gloria"

 

Thomas Lawson Hawkins was born in 1923 in Springfield, MA and moved to Glen Rock with his parents when he was a young child. The family lived in several homes over the years, residing on Hamilton Avenue and Broad Street before settling at 35 Dean Street around 1941.

 

Hawkins was very bright and athletic and had a gift for vocal music. He attended Central School, Glen Rock’s new Junior High School on Harristown Road, and Ridgewood High School (as most Glen Rock students did at the time), graduating as a member of the Ridgewood High School Class of 1942. In high school, Hawkins was a member of the track and football teams and of the Glee Club and A Capella Choir. His family attended the Mt. Bethel Baptist Church on South Broad Street where he sang in the Junior Choir. Following graduation, he enrolled at Temple University in Philadelphia, determined to become a podiatrist, but it was a time of war and his college degree would have to wait.

 

On March 17, 1943, Thomas Hawkins enlisted in the Army Air Forces and began his training to become one of World War II’s famed Tuskegee Airmen. The recruits enlisted into a program that was ordered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt over the objections of his top generals. The program’s goal was to train African-American men to fly and maintain combat aircraft. This was a revolutionary concept for a country that was still deeply segregated, especially in the South where much of the flight training was to take place. Both of Thomas’ parents were born in Virginia so perhaps Cadet Hawkins was not as shocked as some of the other northern recruits when they first encountered Jim Crow laws while traveling to basic training in Mississippi and Alabama. Union Station in Washington DC was the demarcation line for many: at that point in the journey, the train conductor forced all black passengers to move to a designated train car, the one behind the smoky, smelly coal car.

 

After basic training, the men were assigned to Tuskegee Army Air Field in Macon County, Alabama for flight instruction. The entire program at Tuskegee Army Air Field – instruction, administration, cadets, maintenance and support personnel – was strictly segregated. Many government and military leaders did not support the Tuskegee program so the training facilities were initially inadequate, but by 1945 almost 1,000 pilots had been trained and 450 Tuskegee Airmen served overseas, flying over 1,500 missions in Africa and Europe. U.S. military strategy was to use heavy bombers based in Italy to pound away at German industrial targets, and the Red Tails (officially the 332nd Fighter Group) were fighter escorts used to protect the bombers on their missions. The “Red Tails” nickname came about because of the bright red paint used on the tails of their planes – the pilots wanted everyone to know that they were on the job.

 

In November 1944, Flight Officer Hawkins was assigned to the 100th Fighter Squadron, 332nd Fighter Group, and by January 1st he had 28 missions and 3 kills to his credit. He was awarded the Air Medal and Oak Leaf Cluster in early 1945 for bombing missions against German trains carrying supplies to the Russian Front. Soon after, he was named Flight Leader of his group and was in command of a squadron of nine pilots. He named his P-51 Mustang airplane “Gloria” after the woman he married in Alabama on Christmas Day in 1943.

 

On March 7, 1945, Flight Officer Hawkins was killed on take-off from the Ramitelli Airdrome in Italy. His plane crashed on the runway during a mission to Munich. He was 21 years old. When he crashed, Hawkins was in an unfamiliar plane. The “Gloria” experienced engine trouble that morning so he switched to a different airplane in order to complete his mission.

 

The exemplary accomplishments of the Tuskegee Airmen convinced President Harry S. Truman to desegregate the US Armed Forces in 1948 with Executive Order #9981. This Order opened up job opportunities in the military for African-Americans that were still denied to them in the private sector. In March 2007, President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the Tuskegee Airmen for their contributions and sacrifices made decades earlier. Thomas L. Hawkins’ name is on the Glen Rock War Memorial on the grounds of the Municipal Building so that we never forget the sacrifice and patriotism of those who have died in the service of our country.

 

William McHale (left) helping with the raffle at the 1942 Glen Rock IDA Fair 

 

William A. McHale, the captain of the Mormacsea commercial freighter in 1940, had a special connection to Byrd School – namely, his daughter, Eileen, was a student there. Eileen’s 4th grade teacher, Miss Eleanor Starrs, thought this offered a great opportunity for her students and so a robust letter-writing campaign was begun between the Byrd students and the men aboard the Mormacsea. Little did they know but their pen-pals would become an integral part of World War II intrigue as the civilian Mormacsea found herself in the middle of the German invasion of Norway, with a hold full of secret gold.

 

Here’s the story, as told by Captain McHale and several of his crew mates. At 4:45 a.m. on April 9, 1940, the Mormacsea lay at dock in Trondheim, Norway. McHale’s freighter, owned by the Moore McCormick Line, had left New York City with a cargo of medical supplies and clothing for the Red Cross destined for Finland. The ship also carried a variety of military munitions including a large shipment of Thompson machine guns that were offloaded at Bergen in Norway. The U.S. was officially neutral at this time and, as a civilian freighter, the Mormacsea was still allowed to ply her trade even with war ravaging Europe.

 

In that early morning of April 9th, Captain McHale was awakened to find a German cruiser, the Admiral Hipper, pulled up alongside the Mormacsea. It became clear quite quickly that the Nazis had taken the port of Trondheim and indeed Norway without firing a single shot on land.

 

It so happened that prior to sailing from New York to Norway, Captain McHale and his Chief Mate Al McKinnon were informed that, in addition to their usual orders to pick up and discharge the scheduled cargo, they were to pick up classified material in Bergen, Norway on the orders of the U.S. State Department. McHale and McKinnon were both Lt. Commanders in the U.S. Naval Reserve. They dropped off the machine guns in Bergen as planned and took on board an unusual shipment: $4.5 Million worth of gold ingots from the government of Sweden, to be transported back to New York as soon as possible. The gold was stowed in a secret compartment, which was then welded shut and had 800 tons of peat piled in front of it. The ship then proceeded to Trondheim to offload the medical supplies before returning to New York – but the Nazi invasion interrupted those plans.

 

Since the gold was entered on the ship’s manifest, McHale had plenty to be worried about, especially when he found that the major communication lines in Trondheim had been cut. He was assured by the German command that they would respect the Mormacsea’s neutrality - they told him that they were only there to protect the Norwegians from the English - but he was uneasy and asked permission to move his ship to Hommelvik, about 12 miles from Trondheim. He was allowed to do so, but he was not able to leave Norway as he was awaiting further orders. Over the next several days, Captain McHale became increasingly concerned for the safety of his 38 crewmen and the security of his ship as conditions in Trondheim and Hommelvik steadily deteriorated. Large numbers of the local population were fleeing the area to join up with the Resistance forming in the mountains. The concern increased when a Finnish Captain told McHale that the Germans had boarded his ship and removed a piece of his engine and parts of his radio. McHale did not want Germans on his ship for many reasons, not least of which was the gold hidden on board.

 

Finally, McHale was given orders to leave; he was also ordered not to take on any passengers and so had to disembark the few U.S. Nationals on board who were not part of the crew. The rationale for not offering transport for U.S. citizens fleeing the conditions in Norway was that it was assumed that the Norwegian waters had been mined and safety could not be guaranteed. The Germans refused to provide a harbor pilot to navigate the ship to safer waters. Luckily, the Mormacsea’s Engineer, Harold Wood, was able to find an experienced coastal pilot who, for a hefty fee, would guide the ship out. Also in the ship’s favor was Captain McHale’s service as commander of a British minesweeper during World War I. [McHale was born in England, later immigrating to America and becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.]  On the morning of their departure, on April 14th, the crew - minus the bare minimum required in the engine room - was mustered on deck, near the life rafts. At a speed of five knots, the Mormacsea inched her way out of the fjord heading for the open sea. The well-compensated coastal pilot was dropped off on the island of Halten (he had been told that it was possible that he would have to stay on the ship all the way to New York, and he had accepted this). For the next six hours, Captain McHale remained on the bridge, constantly scanning for mines. He ordered the ship’s radio operator to continually broadcast their movement, in hopes that the British might at some point step in to help with mine avoidance. They never got a response. They also never spotted any mines.

 

The Mormacsea arrived safely in New York City on April 25th. In his personal diary, Captain McHale notes: “Throughout this whole trouble, my officers and crew were wonderful. Everybody seemed to want to work together. I think we must all live right!” He printed up copies of his diary and distributed them to the students of Byrd School. After returning from Norway, McHale was re-called to active duty with the U.S. Navy and he served honorably as Captain of the USS Warren, an attack transport, planning as well as leading many of the major assaults in the Asia-Pacific theater.

 

Once the Mormacsea was safely home, the story of the hidden gold could finally be told, to a point. Captain McHale was hailed as a “World Hero” for his role in outsmarting the Germans in Norway. In an intriguing twist, there is no verifiable record to indicate that the $4.5 Million worth of Swedish gold was ever deposited at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York on or about April 25th, 1940. Wartime records do indicate that the Swedish Enskilda Bank in Stockholm received $4.5 Million from the German Reichsbank in 1940. Sweden was officially neutral for the entirety of World War II. The Enskilda Bank had been suspected of moving looted gold and other German “cloaked assets”, identified as Swedish, around the world with some impunity. Someday maybe the mystery will be unraveled when the appropriate records are declassified.

 

***********

 

Ludovicus van Iersel only spent a short time in Glen Rock - long enough to enlist in the U.S. Army.  In fact, his connection to Glen Rock is mostly known today because he listed "Doremus Avenue, Glen Rock, NJ" on his enlistment card in 1917.  After the War, he returned to New Jersey, but to Passaic not Glen Rock.  He developed lung problems as the result of being gassed twice while he was in France.  That, coupled with a promised business opportunity here that did not materialize, plus a desire to start a new life as Louis, helped him decide to start over in California.  When the borough of Glen Rock decided to honor the local men who served during World War I with a bronze plaque affixed to the front of the landmark Rock in 1921, Ludovicus' name was overlooked and he is not included on our WWI War Memorial.  I suspect that this is because he was not here for any length of time and, given his lack of English language, possibly had very limited interactions with the Glen Rock populace.  But he is ours and we embrace him now.

 

Thomas Hawkins' story is a story of triumph and tragedy.  He overcame great odds to become one of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen.  His parents, William and Rebecca, lived out their lives in the Dean Street home and are buried, beside Thomas, in Valleau Cemetery in Ridgewood.  When I was first researching Thomas' story, I spoke to the Reverend Johnson at Mt. Bethel Baptist Church and he remembered Rebecca as a faithful parishioner until her death.

 

William McHale continued his heroics in the Pacific as a Commander in the U.S. Navy during World War II, also serving as Chief of Staff for an Admiral before heart troubles sent him into retirement.  He gifted the Mormacsea's flag to Byrd School.  He was also instrumental in securing the bell from the USS John Lang, a Naval Destroyer, as a gift from the U.S. Navy to the borough of Glen Rock in 1955.  Captain McHale had seen the Lang in action first-hand at Iwo Jima, and when it came time for the Destroyer to be scrapped, he brought her bell to Glen Rock, where it still resides today as a monument in Veterans Park.  (You can read more about the USS Lang and her bell here).

 

These three men are three of Glen Rock's finest, and their lives and their stories deserve to be remembered and honored.  Thank you for listening to their stories today, as we salute Glen Rock's past and eagerly look forward to Glen Rock's future.

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