TOMS RIVER – When George Potter Vanderveer served in “the war to end all wars,” he probably didn’t realize how historic his sacrifice would be.
Vanderveer, from Bayville, was the first from Ocean County to die in World War I. He served with Company E of the 24th Engineer Corps. He passed away at 19 years of age on Aug. 4, 1918, at Fort Porter in New York. He had been suffering from “shell shock and gas.” According to the New Jersey Courier: “He was thought to be improving nicely when acute articular rheumatism set in.” He had even told his father, while on his hospital bed, that he wanted to get back to France to continue serving.
One hundred years later, he still is serving, in a way.
The American Legion as a national institution is 100 years old. The local branch, Post 129, started the same year, in 1919. Past president Bob Scheiderman gave a tour to JerseyShoreOnline recently.
According to the post’s own history, it all started back in September of 1919. U.S. Army Lt. Clifford R. Powell travels through Toms River and “stirs up the boys” just back from the war to start up the post. On Oct. 21 of that year, a group of about two dozen veterans assembled to create the post. Victory discharge buttons were given to those who presented discharge certificates. Leadership was elected that day, and they met at a restaurant/inn called the “Ocean House,” located at the northwest corner of Main and Water streets.
Also on that day, the Legion was invited by the Toms River Fire Company to participate in their Armistice Day Parade on Nov. 11. After the parade, the fire company gifted the post with a flag mounted on a ten foot oak staff. This staff is still on display in the hall.
As to a permanent residence, that would come later. They acquired property from Deloro Potter on Main Street (Route 9 today). Later, in 1924, the town bought a strip of land from them to build a road to the school. The Legion required that the road be called Legion Court, and it still has that name today.
In the 1990s, the post had outgrown the property and purchased the current spot at 2025 Church Road. The building hosts events, has a bar with table seating, and conducts Legion business.
It also stores historic artifacts, such as a photograph taken of Vanderveer at boot camp. It was given to the Legion by his mother, and the photo still hangs in the hall.
It’s not just Legion history, but American history. There are artifacts like a 48-star American flag that had been carried by a soldier. A piece of the Pentagon from the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
As a museum of sorts, the building winds up housing some unusual pieces that come in from soldiers and their families. Scheiderman described finding three letters written in French from boy named Jean Pirlot. He had written them in 1921, and Scheiderman found the letters in the archives in 1990.
They learned that the post had “adopted” a child who had been orphaned by the first World War. By “adopting,” they sent a sum of money to care for Jean. His father, a schoolteacher, was killed in the war. Two friends of the post stepped in to help. Colette Fishman translated the letters. Gabe Benedict, who retired as a journalist and spent the last 12 years in Paris, wrote to the mayor of Paris to try to find Mr. Pirlot. Unfortunately, the answer was not a good one. “I regret to inform you that Mr. Jean Pirlot passed away while being deported to Germany on 24, March 1945.” His widow and his sister had just recently passed.
The Legion has a hand in anything that can help veterans, Scheiderman said. On the grand scale, it’s advocating for rights and laws that help veterans. On the small scale, it’s making sure local vets have what they need. You don’t have to be a resident of Toms River to be a member of the Toms River post, and there are other posts in the area.
In all likelihood, the post will continue for another hundred years because every war makes more veterans and history doesn’t ever stop.