A look back at New Jersey’s greatest generation

Most people in New Jersey politics today probably have never heard of Albert Vreeland or Frank Omsers, both young New Jersey Congressmen who placed patriotism above politics and the security of our nation ahead of their own political careers.

Albert Vreeland first demonstrated his commitment to public service as a 17-year-old, driving an ambulance for the American Red Cross during World War I. He became active in local politics in East Orange (a Republican stronghold seventy years ago) and served as an Assistant City Attorney, Municipal Prosecutor, and at age 33 a Municipal Court Judge. In 1938, at age 37, Vreeland won election to Congress, unseating freshman Congressman Edward O’Neill.

Osmers was a rising star in Bergen County politics. He was elected Borough Councilman in Haworth at age 23, Mayor at age 27, and State Assemblyman at age 28. In 1938, at age 31, he was elected to Congress, winning the open seat of Edward Kenny, a Congressman who died earlier that year.

The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day, Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress and asked that they declare a State of War. Vreeland and Osmers, along with all but one colleague, voted for the declaration of War. Hours later, Vreeland and Osmers, along with several other Members of Congress (including then-Congressman Lyndon Johnson) were granted leaves of absence to join the armed services.

Vreeland went on active duty in the U.S. Army and assigned to the Military Intelligence Section of the War Department. In April 1942 he was transferred to the 67th Infantry Division and commissioned a Major. Osmers enlisted as a private and was graduated from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Ga., as a second lieutenant.

On July 18, 1942, President Roosevelt ordered all Members of Congress back to Washington. The Congressmen had no choice but to obey the request by their Commander-In-Chief. Anxious to serve their country during a time of war, Vreeland and Osmers both chose not to run for re-election in 1942, and upon the expiration of their terms on January 4, 1943, re-entered the Army.

Vreeland served two years in Australia and New Guinea; he was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel on August 27, 1944, and ordered to inactive duty one year later.

Osmers went on active duty as a Second Lieutenant in the 77th Infantry Division on January 4, 1943, transferred to the 24th Corps and served in the Philippine and Okinawa campaigns and the Korean occupation. He was awarded the Bronze Star and discharged as a Major on February 22, 1946.

Osmers returned to Bergen County, where he was a jeweler, and waited for an opportunity to reclaim his seat in Congress. That came in a 1951 special election, after Harry Towe (who won Osmers’ seat in 1942) resigned to become Deputy State Attorney General. Osmers was re-elected six more times, but in the Democratic landslide of 1964, he narrowly lost his seat to Democrat Henry Helstoski, the Mayor of East Rutherford. He lost a rematch against Helstoski in 1966, and later served as Bergen County Administrator. He died in 1977, at age 69. Vreeland served as East Orange Police Commissioner after the war, but never resumed his political career. He practiced law until his death at age 73.

Two members of the New Jersey State Senate resigned their seats in the legislature to sign up for active military service:

W. Steelman Mathis was elected to the State Senate from Ocean County in 1940. He had served in the U.S. Army during World War I, but after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he decided his place was in defense of his country. Mathis resigned from the Senate in 1942, and at age 44 joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He returned to the Senate in a 1946 special election, became Senate President in 1955, and served in the Senate until his retirement in 1965.

Wesley Lance of Hunterdon County was elected to the State Assembly in 1937, at age 29, and to the Senate in 1941. He resigned from the Senate in 1943 to enter the U.S. Navy and served on an aircraft carrier. Lance resumed his political career in 1947 when he was elected to serve as a Delegate to the state Constitutional Convention, and appointed as a Hunterdon County Court Judge. He was again elected to the State Senate in 1953, winning the nominations of both the Republican and Democratic parties, served as Senate President in 1959, and retired from the Senate in 1961. Lance, now 99, is the father of Senate Minority Leader Leonard Lance.

Many other local officials traded in their public offices for military uniforms, including: Joseph Cowgill (later the Senate Minority Leader), who resigned as Camden County Surrogate to join the Navy; Henry Haines (later a State Senator), who resigned as a Councilman in Burlington City to join the Navy; and Sido Ridolfi (later the Senate President) left his post as Counsel to Governor Charles Edison to join the U.S. Coast Guard.

In 1941, Democrat Robert Meyner, a 33-year-old attorney from Phillipsburg, ran for State Senator in Warren County and lost the general election by just fifty votes. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and as a Commander of Naval gun crews on merchant vessels in the American and European theaters. He ran again for the State Senate in 1947 and won. He became Senate Minority Leader in 1950, and in 1953 won an upset victory for Governor of New Jersey against Republican Paul Troast.

The spirit of public service demonstrated sixty years earlier by Vreeland, Osmers, Mathis, Lance and many other members of what Tom Brokaw called “the greatest generation” was not lost on current politics. Soon after September 11, 2001, Carly Albertus, then a 25-year-old member of Acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco’s staff, joined the New Jersey National Guard. She was the first political operative to heed the call of America’s defense.

Then-Burlington County Democratic Chairman Louis Gallagher, who was running against GOP Senator Diane Allen in the seventh district, was among a large group of Naval Reserve officers to be called up for active military service. Gallagher was a Master Chief of the elite Navy SEAL Team, assigned to the Special Operations Command. He served in Desert Storm, Grenada, Panama, Bosnia, and Nicaragua. His wife continued his ultimately unsuccessful campaign against Allen while he was on active duty.

Those who served this nation in military service dominated politics in the post-World War II era. General Dwight Eisenhower was elected President with relative ease; historians say that Republicans and Democrats both tried to entice Eisenhower to join their party. Americans rewarded our nation’s war heroes by electing record numbers of veterans to public office. John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon in 1946, and Gerald R. Ford in 1948, won election to Congress mostly on the coattails of their own military service. New Jersey voters sent ten young World War II veterans to Congress between 1948 and 1960.

Peter Rodino and Hugh Addonizio, both Newark Democrats, used their status as war heroes to unseat veteran Republican Congressmen in the 1948 elections. The 39-year-old Rodino, a Bronze Star winner, defeated veteran Fred Hartley, the co-sponsor of the Taft-Hartley Act, and went on to play a key role in American history as Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee during Watergate. Addonizio entered the U.S. Army as a Private and was discharged as a Captain after a highly decorated career where he fought in Normandy and other major military campaigns. At age 34, he defeated Frank Sundstrom, who took Vreeland’s House seat in 1942. He left Congress after seven terms to become Mayor of Newark; his career ended in scandal.

Democrat Frank Thompson, Jr., received three combat decorations for action at Iwo Jima and Okinawa while serving in the U.S. Navy. He won election to the State Assembly in 1949. He commanded the United States Naval Reserve Battalion 4-22 and completed a seventeen-month tour of active duty, from August 1950 to January 1952, on the staff of the Commander, Eastern Sea Frontier. Thompson was the Assembly Minority Leader when he was elected to Congress in 1954. He lost his seat to Republican Christopher Smith in 1980 after his involvement in the Abscam scandal. He served a short term in a federal prison and died in 1989 at age 70.

Republican Peter H.B. Frelinghuysen, scion of a prominent New Jersey political family, served in the office of the Chief of Naval Intelligence during World War II. He worked for the Hoover Commission after the war, as a staff member for the Foreign Affairs Task Force. He won an open seat in Congress at age 36 when Charles Eaton retired in 1952. Frelinghuysen spent 22 years in Congress and was the Ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee when he retired in 1974. Frelinghuysen, now 85, resides in Morris County; his son, Vietnam War veteran Rodney Frelinghuysen, now holds the seat.

Democrat Alfred Sieminski entered the U.S. Army as a private in 1942. He served in Italian campaign with the 92nd Buffalo Division in 1944 and 1945. He was a Captain in the Military Government Division in Austria in 1945 and 1946, served with 10th Corps in Korea in 1950, and later became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Infantry Reserves. The Hudson County Democratic machine, in turmoil after John V. Kenny upset the slate of Jersey City candidates backed by the legendary Frank Hague the year before, recognized the appeal of the charismatic graduate of Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and when veteran Congresswoman Mary T. Norton retired in 1950, Sieminski was elected to Congress at age 39. Sieminski served four terms before he became the victim of a Jersey City political battle and lost renomination in the Democratic primary. He later served as Vice President of The Hun School and died in 1990 at age 79.

The winner of the 1958 Democratic primary that ended Sieminski’s political career was 37-year-old Cornelius Gallagher, himself a World War II hero. Gallagher commanded an Infantry rifle company in General George Patton’s Third Army in Europe, winning the Bronze Star and three Purple Hearts. He returned briefly to military service during the Korean War. He served a term as a Hudson County Freeholder before running for Congress. In 1968, Life magazine linked Gallagher to reputed Mafia figures. Although the House ethics committee did not investigate, the federal government pursued the case. In 1972, Gallagher pleaded guilty to tax evasion and perjury; he finished third in the Democratic primary that year with just 15% of the vote. Gallagher, now 80, is retired and lives in Sussex County.

The political career of Republican Milton Glenn was also on the rise before World War II. He was a young Municipal Court Judge in Atlantic City when he resigned from the bench in 1943 to accept a commission as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. He was elected Atlantic County Freeholder in 1946, and won a 1950 special election for the State Assembly. When Congressman Millett Hand died in 1957, Glenn won the seat in a special election, and held it until 1964, when he lost to Thomas McGrath in the Democratic landslide. He practiced law in Atlantic City until his death in 1967 at age 64.

Democrat Harrison Williams was a student at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service when he was called to active duty as a Seaman in the U.S. Navy shortly after Pearl Harbor. He spent a year as aboard a minesweeper, became a naval aviator, and was discharged as a Lieutenant 1945. Williams returned to New Jersey in 1949 and had little success in building a political career: he lost races for the State Assembly in 1951 and for the Plainfield City Council in 1952. But when Republican Clifford Case resigned from the House in 1953 to become President of The Fund for the Republic, the 34-year-old Williams won a special election for the U.S. Congress. He was re-elected in 1954, but lost his seat in 1956 to Republican Florence Dwyer. In 1958, he pulled off an upset victory for U.S. Senator against ten-term Republican Congressman Robert Kean, the father of future Governor Thomas Kean. Williams spent the next two decades in the Senate, becoming New Jersey’s most popular vote-getter and Chairman of the Senate Labor Committee. In 1980, he was implicated in the Abscam scandal and resigned from the Senate following his conviction in 1982. Williams spent several years in a federal prison and now, at age 81, lives in Somerset County.

Democrat Charles Joelson was an attorney in Paterson when he enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942; he served in the Far Eastern Branch of the Division of Naval Intelligence. After the war, Joelson became Paterson City Attorney, Deputy Attorney General of New Jersey, and Passaic County Prosecutor before winning an open House seat in 1960 at age 44. He spent nine years in Congress before leaving to become a Superior Court Judge. Joelson died in 1999 at age 83.

The last Republican to win a congressional seat from Hudson County was Vincent Dellay, a bookkeeper and U.S. Navy veteran who upset a freshman Democrat, James Tummulty, in 1956, partly on the heals of Eisenhower’s coattails. Dellay sought to keep his seat by switching to the Democratic Party in 1958, but the Hudson Democratic machine instead selected Dominick Daniels as their candidate; Dellay ran unsuccessfully as an Independent. Governor Meyner gave Dellay a job as a field auditor for New Jersey Treasury Department. He retired in 1971, and died in 1999 at age 91.

Republican Frank Matthews served nineteen months overseas in the U.S. Army during World War I. After the war, he attended college and law school, and became a District Court Judge in Burlington County and Counsel to the state Highway Department. He was recalled to active military duty in 1940 to serve as Judge Advocate of the 44th Division. He was elected to Congress in a 1945 special election to replace Lane Powers, who had been appointed the Public Utilities Commission. Matthews was re-elected in 1946, but did not run again in 1948, opting instead to become a Deputy State Attorney General. He practiced law in Cinnaminson until his death in 1964 at the age of 74.

U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg is likey to become among the last World War II veteran to represent New Jersey in Congress. He served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

Throughout the political history of New Jersey, military service has often provided the foundation for continued public service. Frederick Frelinghuysen, the great-great-great-great-grandfather of Rodney Frelinghuysen, was elected to the United States Senate from New Jersey in 1792 after serving as a Colonel during the Revolutionary War, and (by the appointment of President George Washington) as a Brigadier General in the campaign against the western Indians. While serving in the U.S. Senate in 1794, Frederick Frelinghuysen was commissioned as a Major General during the Whiskey Rebellion. Lucius Elmer, a Major of the New Jersey Militia during the War of 1812, later served as Assembly Speaker, Cumberland County Prosecutor, U.S. Attorney, Congressman, state Attorney General, and Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court. Edward Francis O’Donnell was born in Ireland in 1844 and emigrated to the United States at the age of six. During the Civil War, O’Donnell enlisted in Company I, Seventh Regiment, New Jersey Volunteer Infantry. At age 28, he was elected to the State Assembly, and then three years later to the Hudson County Freeholder Board. He was later elected to the State Senate, served for one year and on the final day of the session was unseated as part of a Hudson County electoral dispute. He later regained his seat. He died at age 48 during his first term in Congress. William Sutphin resigned as Mayor of Matawan to join the U.S. Air Service during World War I. He was again elected Mayor after the war, and in 1930 won his first of six terms in the U.S. Congress. The number of war veterans who have held elected and appointed offices in New Jersey since the 1700’s are probably in the thousands.

Surely one of the most prominent military figures to enter the New Jersey political arena was George McClellan, a Union Army General during the Civil War. McClellan commanded the Army of the Potomac, but his performance did not satisfy the Commander-In-Chief, President Abraham Lincoln, and he was fired. McClellan became the Democratic candidate for President against Lincoln in the 1864 election. McClellan carried only New Jersey and two other states; his margin over Lincoln in New Jersey during the wartime election was 53%-47%. An Essex County resident, he was elected Governor in 1877 by a wide margin.

In the years following World War II, hundreds of veterans won national, state, county and local offices. Indeed, almost half of the members of the New Jersey State Assembly in the mid-1960’s had completed some form of military service.

A look back at New Jersey’s greatest generation