SANDY HOOK – A couple sat hand-in-hand on the garland-draped porch of the History House at Fort Hancock and looked out over five miles of Sandy Hook Bay separating the historic landing from the hustle and bustle of the mainland.
Inside the preserved residence – one of 18 historic officers homes constructed on site between 1898 and 1899 that make up Officer’s Row – the pocket doors were open to reveal family room settings alive with curious patrons flipping through albums of black-and-white photos. A younger group hovered near an illuminated Christmas tree trying to unravel the mystery of a desktop phonograph.
Peaceful moments between companions, small talk over grainy photos and kids spinning records in the living room were simple pleasures of the holiday season on Officer’s Row in 1943. Three-quarters of a century later, the experience was revived at the Sandy Hook site by the Army Ground Forces Association (AGFA).
In a Dec. 15 interview with The Two River Times, AGFA Board of Directors member Shawn Welch said living history experiences are an effective way to bring local residents back in time.
“These interpretations of the past are meant to provoke thought and cause people to explore more on their own. We want to give people a taste of the story, which in turn causes them to go after more of it,” said Welch, a retired United States Army colonel with 30 years of military service.
Welch’s wife Anne said Christmas decorations, vocal groups like the Swingtime Dolls and a visit from the big man himself, Santa Claus, were the historically accurate lures to get locals through the door and open their minds to what life on an isolated military base was like during the early 1940s.
“Some people are a little mixed on what military life is all about,” said Anne, who was dressed in an authentic military nurse’s uniform. “The socialization of the garrison and the acknowledgement of the holidays was a big part of it. There was a sense of family and community on the base and it’s something that needs to be recognized. It’s something we try to depict to people. Not every aspect of the military is militaristic.”
According to Welch, despite the holiday cheer, those stationed at Fort Hancock were still left with a sense of uncertainty about what the war would bring. After all, the garrison was a strategic stronghold used to guard New Jersey’s coastal waters from German U-boats and ensure safe passage of cargo in and out of the New York Harbor.
“People don’t realize how important that harbor was to World War II,” Welch said. “Sixty percent of everything we sent to Europe went through it. The Army’s job was to keep it open, and the Germans weren’t playing along. They sunk more than 5,100 of our ships in the Atlantic Ocean during the war. That’s one ship every eight hours.”
In the foyer of the History House, Trinity Hall music director Andrew Bogdan said the event was a teachable moment for his students.
During Saturday’s proceedings, Bogden sat behind an authentic World War II-era chaplain field organ, setting the stage for his choral group to perform a collection of Christmas classics, none more emotionally stirring for the vocalists than “Silent Night.”
“Playing the song in this setting is very meaningful for all of us and a moment I know the girls are never going to forget,” said Bogden, who explained how in preparation for the performance he told his students the story of the Christmas truce of 1914, an unprecedented moment in the first World War when soldiers from opposing sides of the Western Front emerged from their fox holes and ventured into no man’s land on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
Some of the troops simply arranged joint burials for fallen comrades or coordinated prisoner exchanges, but in other documented cases, soldiers exchanged food and souvenirs, played soccer games and even sang “Silent Night.”
“This is a very special time of year and you see how special it is through stories like that of the Christmas truce,” said Rev. John Uhler, an AGFA member.
“Warring soldiers coming together to celebrate life in a time of great darkness, that’s a miracle, and shows the power of Christmas. These types of stories resonate with people and their telling is all part of hosting events like these. It’s about bringing people together in a historical setting, piquing their interest with other historical discussions and inspiring them explore it deeper,” Uhler added.For more information about the History House at Fort Hancock visit sandyhookfoundation.com/history-house.
This article was first published in the Jan. 3-9 2019 print edition of The Two River Times.
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