Veterans Remember the Best Years of Their Lives

At the Veterans Home in Vineland, old soldiers enjoy companionship and shared memories, some painful, some sweet.

In all of New Jersey, there may be no other patch of earth that has been home to veterans of more American wars than the 26 green and placid acres alongside the railroad tracks a few blocks north of downtown Vineland. Since 1899, it has been the site of the various incarnations of a state facility familiarly known as the Old Soldiers Home. When it opened, it had 46 residents, most of them veterans of the Civil War. Today, it has 296 residents, most of whom served during World War II, but others in Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm.

The original soldiers home is long gone. The five-story, 150-room Italianate structure, which had a sandstone facade, and was encrusted with porticoes and balconies and crowned by a cupola, was first a Methodist seminary and then a Catholic college. Most of the subsequent buildings are gone, too, replaced more than a decade ago by the current Vineland Veterans Memorial Home, a series of three-story brick residential structures connected to a central administration and recreation building. A portion of the original sandstone wall still stands in the foyer of the central building, adjacent to a more recent addition: the Final Roll Call, a wall hung with plaques bearing the names of each resident who has died since 2011.

“We’re going to continue right around the corner,” says Lisa Williams, supervisor of recreation and volunteer coordinator, pointing to where the names will turn and march, as if in formation, along the central corridor. The wall is amended each Memorial Day, when families gather to toss flower wreaths into a pond in the picnic grove out back as the names are read: 85 in 2016, 81 the year before. “This place is a living history book, and we do everything we can to preserve as much history as we can of our soldiers,” Williams says. Here are the stories of four of those men.

Photo by Dave Moser

Photo by Dave Moser

Bombardier Saw “Hell from Heaven”

In his room in the Independence Hall unit, Leonard Streitfeld keeps photos of his late wife, Mary, whom he met in 1943 at a USO dance on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City; his three children, one of whom practiced optometry with him in Hammonton; and his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And hanging on the wall is a picture that recalls another momentous chapter in his 94 years: a B-17 bomber like the one in which he flew 31 missions over occupied Europe in World War II.

“Sitting right there in the nose of the ship,” he says, pointing to the Plexiglas bubble through which he sighted his targets as a bombardier and watched the air war unfold, “I could see all the stuff ahead of me, and some of it was really unbelievable; even to this day I think about it. You have to go toward the target and you see all this flak around you before you hit the target; hundreds of shells would come up at us and explode, and pieces of the flak would hit the plane.”

The day after Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941, Streitfeld listened to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech on the radio in his father’s optometry office on 13th Street in downtown Philadelphia. Rather than wait to get drafted, which would have put him in the Army, he decided to enlist so he could join the Air Corps and fly. A badly broken hand delayed his deployment overseas. He was sent to Atlantic City to recuperate.

“I stood there and I noticed across that dance floor these four girls were sitting there, and one of them looked so pretty,” he says about the night he met Mary. “And I’m looking at her, and she was looking around and our eyes met, and I was embarrassed so I looked the other way. A little while later I grabbed another look, and our eyes met again, and I said, ‘I’m going to ask her to dance,’ so I did, and we danced the rest of the night.”

Streitfeld was still training Stateside when his father died suddenly, leaving behind a newly purchased Bell & Howell movie camera that Streitfeld took overseas and used to film each of his missions. “One piece of flak came in and shattered part of the glass, and a piece of glass came up and hit the camera,” he says. “If I hadn’t been taking movies, it would have hit me in the eye. I even saved the piece.”

He was in the 398th Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, based in England, and his first two missions were in early January 1945, during the Battle of the Bulge. “We bombed Cologne, and we didn’t hit any flak or anything, and I thought, This is good, I’ll be out of here in no time,” he says. “But the third mission we were hit pretty bad; we had two engines knocked out. I thought we were going to go down in Germany.”

They managed to land in France, and when they finally got back to England, Streitfeld did what he made it his habit to do after every one of his missions. “The first thing I did every time, while the other fellas were boozing it up, was sit down on the edge of my bed and write down all the pertinent facts about the mission,” he says.

There were other close calls, but he emerged unscathed, just as a palm reader in Texas had predicted before he shipped overseas. She saw for him a long life—and three children. “I was very lucky, and I almost felt like someone watched over me,” he says. “I never was nervous about it. I just had a good feeling about my time in the service that I was going to survive it.”

Almost 50 years after the war, his diaries, as well as the movies and photographs he shot from the nose of the plane, helped him write a 227-page, privately published memoir, Hell From Heaven. If you want to hear about the war now, he sometimes prefers to let his book speak for him. The Vineland veterans home has epic stories in almost every room, but they often go untold.

“You don’t talk war anymore. Probably some fellas bring something up, but I don’t get involved with any of the stories like that,” says Streitfeld, widely known as “Doc.” He came to the home 2 ½  years ago with Mary, who died soon after. “I really miss her. A lot of time I find myself wanting to ask her a question—I always asked her questions about anything and sometimes I start talking as though she was here, and I realize she’s not here.”

The war does occasionally visit him at night, though. “Every now and then I have a dream, and it’s like a whole story, things I’ve experienced that are still in my mind. A lot of things happened that no one knows about,” he says, adding, “but we know about it”—a reference to his comrades in arms.

Photo by Dave Moser

Photo by Dave Moser

Goal: Recover, Not Retire
Andrew Vaden—whose father and grandfather served in African-American units in the segregated military in World War II—graduated from Wildwood High School on June 13, 1967. Less than one month later, he was in the Army.

“I had no intention of going to college,” says Vaden. “I just wanted adventure. I wanted to travel.”

Vaden, 67, had worked with ham radios as a boy, and he had one request for the recruiter: “Anything in electronics.” The recruiter had just the spot for him, but it was a five-year hitch: the Army Security Agency, a small signal intelligence branch that was “tactically controlled by the Army,” as Vaden describes it, “but operationally controlled by the National Security Agency.”

The Army taught Vaden to work with electronic equipment that had far greater power and reach than a ham radio. It was the middle of the Cold War, and U.S. intelligence units were eavesdropping on the Soviet Union and China from listening posts around the world, intercepting radio and satellite signals, and detecting missile launches and nuclear bomb tests.

“It was exotic stuff,” he says. “We had stuff that did not exist anywhere else in the world.”

Vaden was an electronics technician and analyst working on small teams that built, modified and repaired equipment. Home base was Vint Hill Farms Station in the horse country of Northern Virginia, but his assignments took him on a whirlwind, global itinerary: Italy, Germany, Turkey, Eritrea, Iran, Pakistan. His last and longest post (“11 months and 22 days”) was in Vietnam at a field station in Phu Bai near Hue, “when things were slowly collapsing.”

After he left the Army in 1972, Vaden became a police officer in Wildwood and remained in the reserves. He later became a detective with the Cape May County Prosecutor’s Office. He had been promoted to lieutenant and was the father of two boys, ages 4 and 2, when the Army reeled him back in 1990.

“Along comes Desert Storm,” he says. “The call came in when my wife was putting the kids to bed. In my mind, I’d been preparing, preparing, preparing.”

And so he went off to another war, training Stateside first with his unit, the 253rd Transportation Company of the New Jersey National Guard, and then to Saudi Arabia. Sandstorms, long truck convoys across the desert, sleeping under a tarp in holes dug in the ground, zipping up in a body bag to keep warm through the cold desert nights, gathering around a shortwave radio for the news from the BBC—it was a much different war from his last one.

“Fortunately, I had guys with me who had been in Vietnam. Some of the younger troops were a little bit edgy, so we took time with them, told them, “This is what’s going to happen, ‘this is what you need to do,’” he says, which was particularly valuable once the shooting started. “Rocket launchers had moved in to our left and started launching… For the new guys, it was their true first introduction to war.”

He didn’t officially detach from the military until 2009, but Desert Storm was his last deployment. Back in the Prosecutor’s Office, he served as chief of detectives, and then worked as an administrator for the Atlantic and Cape May county courts. Since 2008, he has been battling to fully recover from a  stroke he suffered during surgery to remove a benign meningeal tumor from the surface of his brain. His wife had died in 2002, and when he wasn’t able to stay alone in his own home in Rio Grande any longer, he moved to the veterans home in 2010.

“The intent was only to recuperate,” he says. He goes to therapy regularly, determined to get well enough to leave. He has some ideas for a business he’d like to start. “I didn’t come here with the intention to retire.”

Photo by Dave Moser

Photo by Dave Moser

A Bond Between Generations
William Nixon turned 96 recently, and he doesn’t see as clearly as he once did, so he and his friend Raymond Wynder Jr., a Vietnam veteran who volunteers at the home, have evolved a ritual of recognition. Wynder slaps his right thigh in a rapid rhythm—“the hambone,” he calls it—and Nixon answers with the same.

“This is my buddy,” Nixon says as Wynder pushes his wheelchair into the Stars and Stripes theater in the recreation center, where residents gather to watch movies and sports on the big screen. “He devils me and I devil him.”

Nixon was born in Salem and started World War II with a Bridgeton National Guard unit, eventually landing in the South Pacific with the 152nd Field Artillery, fighting across the Solomon Islands. “We had the great big guns, could shoot seven miles,” he says. “We was in I don’t know how many islands.”

After the war, Nixon worked in a series of South Jersey glass factories. “About a year or two after I got out of the service, I met a girl and she fell in love with me, and I did with her, and we wound up getting married,” he says. They were married for 53 years, and had four daughters. “After she passed, I started moving around with my kids from one to the other.”

He came to the veterans home five years ago and soon grew close both to Wynder and the resident chaplain, Rev. Anthony Elliott. “When I started, we had about a dozen for Sunday services,” says Elliott, who also pastors a Pentecostal church in Millville. Services now draw as many as 50 residents and have moved from the small chapel into the larger auditorium, where a stained-glass window of the Iwo Jima flag raising, made by Doc Streitfeld’s son, will soon be installed.

The war stories that do get told at the home are often told in the chaplain’s office. “I talk with a lot of people, and some of them would say, ‘There could not possibly be a God because of what we went through and what we did, and if in fact there was a God, I’m in trouble for the things that I’ve done overseas, the things I was ordered to do, so therefore I can’t believe in God,’” Elliott says. “It takes a very long time to get their trust.”

Nixon’s children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are regular visitors to the home—one granddaughter volunteers at the home,  bringing a guitar and singing gospel tunes with a country twang on Sundays. Nixon’s visitors often take him to Elliott’s Millville church. “I wouldn’t give that church up for nothing,” Nixon says. “If they had a bed in there, I’d crawl into it and live there.”

Wynder belongs to Elliott’s church, too, and when he and Nixon are together, it’s not war they talk about, but faith. “The World War II guys, they don’t say anything about it all, and I respect that, and I guess it makes me stronger in my belief that I don’t have to either,” says Wynder, 69, a Bridgeton native who enlisted at 17, intent on becoming a paratrooper. By 18 he had earned his jump wings and was in Vietnam with the 101st Airborne Division.

“I think what made me realize I was in a serious place was when they first put me on the line, and it was to go out and retrieve bodies,” he says. He saw more over there than he likes to remember, and he will talk about it when asked, but most of what he does at the home is listen. “I kind of feel I’ve lived this long because I didn’t talk about it—it’s like a jinx.”

Wynder’s own father, Raymond Sr., was one of those quiet World War II guys, a Navy veteran who served on the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise and who spent his last three years at the Vineland home. Raymond Jr. visited his father daily until his death in 2013 and has since continued visiting the home at least twice weekly as a volunteer.

“When I came back home, I was kind of off the charts,” he says about returning from the Army in 1967: two divorces, drugs, riding with outlaw motorcycle clubs. “I was a soldier in civilian life and didn’t realize it; that’s the way I handled it.”

He bounced around jobs. “The only thing I could stick with pretty good was truck driving,” he says. “Long distance, where you only deal with people every other day.”

His religious faith, he says, is what turned him around. “Ride for Jesus,” reads the patch on the back of his black leather motorcycle vest, above a large eagle patch that identifies him as a volunteer at the home.

“This is my way of giving back,” he says before wheeling his buddy down the hallway to his room. “When Dad passed on, there were men I got attached to. I have dads here now.”

Kevin Coyne is a longtime New Jersey Monthly contributor and teacher at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Click here to leave a comment
Read more Jersey Celebrities, Jersey Living articles.

By submitting comments you grant permission for all or part of those comments to appear in the print edition of New Jersey Monthly.