TOMS RIVER – His name is Joseph Placente but on Memorial Day weekend, Fourth of July and Veterans Day, he is known by a few names, Mr. America, Mr. Patriot and as Ocean County’s own Uncle Sam.
Many have seen him at parades sporting his red, white and blue cap and attire while carrying “Old Glory” to promote the spirit of the America and in honor of his fellow veterans. In point of fact however, Ocean County shares him with several states since he began his patriotic tradition in 2002.
“I have covered at least 14 or 15 states carrying the flag. It is a love of country and a love of veterans. I have made it a point out to mark down places I’m going to march at. I had so many GIs – some in uniform – come up to me and greet me out on a highway, throw their arm around me and say thank you. I say ‘Not me, pal, thank you!’ That is what it is all about,” said Placente, who will turn 90 on February 2, 2022.
Two years ago, he served as grand marshal of the Toms River Volunteer Fire Company’s annual Halloween Parade. He first attended that parade 82 years earlier in 1937.
Placente attended the Toms River School system from 1938 – 1948. In 1948 he left school to help out at his father’s barbershop. A year later, he joined the US Armed Forces. “I flew in B-29 aircraft as a radio operator and I got shipped to Korea in ‘52 and ‘53 they put me on a PT boat and then they sent us up to North Korea and we were there for weeks and weeks.
“They had airborne radio equipment on the boat and that is how I ended up on it. From B-29s in the Airforce to the Navy. When I got back, I got to flew in a Globemasters C-124 as a radio operator,” he added.
Placente earned his GED and after being discharged in 1954 he attended night school to earn a diploma from Toms River High School for his planned year of graduation, class of 1950. He noted that his teachers were gracious, kind and caring. Following his time in the military he returned to the barbershop where he worked until 1968.
“My father had a barbershop and I was working with him when I went into the service and I was only 16. He forbid me to go into the service when the Korean War broke out. I was going to go into the Marine Corps. I’m glad I didn’t because I probably never would have made it home. He went down to Florida. He had an intent for me to run that shop with my uncle,” Placente said.
“I finally said, ‘The hell with this I’m going,’” and he joined the Air Force. “There was nine of us who left Toms River together on December 1, 1950. When I came back home, my father got killed in an automobile accident. He left the place to me. My uncle ran it until I got out of the service and we got together. The damn place burned down in 1968. I put up a new one with a sporting goods store with it.”
The patriot has been part of many business ventures over the years including owning Korman’s Bar, a check cashing business, selling jewelry around the country and opening a water conditioning business.
Toms River Schools also benefited from his hard work and dedication. He was a district bus driver for 23 years working his way up to dispatcher. He then advanced to supervisor of the department’s handicapped and special education working under Gus Kakavas. He also worked for Ocean County Security from 1989 to 1994.
Placente joined Toms River Fire Company #2 in 1958 and is a lifetime member. He was honored in 1968 by New Jersey as “Fireman of the Year” for heroic action in saving the life of William Kennedy. He joined the Toms River First Aid Squad in 1976 where he was a volunteer for several years.
His passion for flight led him to earn his pilot’s license in 1968 and he also earned his black belt in martial arts. He was 58 years old when he ran his first race at Ocean County Park proving that it is never too late in life to take on new challenges.
Placente entered the New Jersey Senior Olympics at the age of 65 and he took home gold, silver and bronze medals for running and swimming. He eventually qualified for the National Senior Olympics. He is well known for carrying the American flag to the finish line in all local 5K races.
He married Hattie Mae Jones on August 14, 1954 and they had two daughters; Debra (1955) and Tammie (1960). Hattie Mae died in 1968. He married Georgia Lambert Buchan in 1971 and is the proud grandfather of granddaughter Jamie Leigh Caravella and grandson Neil Joseph Berhing.
He’s a snowbird and at the time of this interview was planning to fly from Florida back to Toms River. Even though Toms River isn’t having a Memorial Day parade, that isn’t stopping him. He said he was determined, despite some health setbacks, to march at 9 a.m. on Memorial Day (May 31) from the Office Lounge Restaurant parking lot.
“That is where I always start. I go down Main Street to Washington Street and I get off from Washington Street to Hooper. I stop and say a little prayer for the guys at the Methodist Church which they did every year when I was a little boy,” he said.
He recalled that Memorial Day ceremony saying, “they stopped and fired the guns and that is something I will never ever forget. They walked down to the river to the old Riverview and then they threw a wreath overboard, said a prayer and off we were going.”
Placente noted, “it has been a wonderful experience doing this. This is a wonderful country.”