At the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month, one hundred years to the second after the end of World War I, bells rang all across the United States in honor of the centennial of the armistice that ended the fighting, and Montclair began its annual Veterans’ Day tribute on November 11 in Edgemont Memorial Park as the final peal of Montclair’s bells died down. Mayor Robert Jackson officiated as the master of ceremonies. The event specifically honored the 71 Montclair residents who were among the 116,516 servicemen who died in the Great War, but it also highlighted the service of a Montclair veteran in the war that followed.
Gerard Sorell, 92, is a veteran of World War II who fought at the Battle of the Bulge, and the story of his heroism at a key engagement with the German army is one that has only come to light recently thanks to the efforts of his son-in-law, Mark Stehr. Sorell’s daughter Deborah Sorell Stehr explained that her father is an Austrian Jewish immigrant who fled Vienna with his mother a year after Hitler annexed Austria without a shot being fired. He settled in New York City, where he attended the High School of Music & Art and excelled as a violinist until he was drafted in 1944 and served with the 394th Regiment of the 94th Infantry, helping to secure a bridge over the Rhine River and sustaining severe damage to his hearing. Nevertheless, he stayed on in Europe after the war and worked as an interpreter with the Counter-Intelligence Corps (CIC) and helped gather information about Nazi war crimes. Mrs. Stehr noted that he led a productive life afterwards, having gone to Princeton University through the G.I. Bill and become a chemical engineer while continuing to pursue music as a hobby despite permanent damage to his hearing, still playing violin with a friend for elderly residents of continued-care homes.
Mrs. Stehr said that her father’s wartime service defined what courage is. “Courage,” she said, “is the unerring commitment to doing the right thing regardless of the cost to yourself to your family or the danger it puts you in.” She thanked everyone who attended for coming to celebrate her father’s courage. She also thanked her husband Mark for having collected documents of her father’s war record and bringing his story to life.
U.S. Army veteran Captain Michael Turgeon spoke next, announcing that the Bronze Star was to be awarded to Sorell retroactively for establishing and aiding a key bridgehead to allow the British and American forces in Belgium to invade Germany and push forward toward Berlin. After Turgeon bestowed Sorell with his citation, Sorell himself spoke, beginning his remarks with a bit of humor. “Deborah,” he said to his daughter, “I always knew what a great guy Mark, your husband is, I never knew what a great guy I am!”
Thanking his son-in-law for the research that made his retroactive Bronze Star possible, Sorell said he had filed for disability because of his hearing damage but was turned down. He let the matter lapse for years before Stehr, his son-in-law, reopened the case for pursued it for three years. Just last year, Sorell said, Stehr contacted U.S. Senator Cory Bookers office for help and tried to get a Purple Heart for Sorell, but even though it was too late to apply for one, he could get a retroactive Bronze Star based on his history. Sorell admitted to being stunned at the news and his wife, upon learning that he would get a retroactive citation, told him, “Better retroactive than posthumous!”
Sorell shared a few stories about his experiences interpreting interviews with German nationals, such as finding out about a possible Nazi weapons cache and the movements of retreating German troops, along with a young German woman accusing an American serviceman of rape, only to find that the accusations were false. He also used a megaphone among the front lines to encourage German troops to surrender in the last days of the war (no one did, at least not at first), and he worked with the CIC to help interrogate Germans to see if they held leadership positions in the Third Reich and/or helped run concentration camps, which had a great impact on him as American Jewish serviceman.
Two students form Glenfield Middle School spoke about the war’s impact on Montclair. Ashley Noel noted that a fundraiser for people engaged in the war was held at the Montclair Theatre on November 11, 1918, to improve the welfare of soldiers abroad and to support the YMCA in France, while a meeting took place elsewhere in town to raise money for a home for French girls working in France’s munitions factories. Samuel Goldings followed, noting the 107 men were drafted from Montclair, and the first draftee, George Barnes, pledged his loyalty to duty and to the cause. Goldings also revealed that is was a Montclair resident, Paul Osborne, who was the first U.S. fatality in the First World War. A French airman flew to where Osborne’s Albert was station to deliver the bad news, and transportation was arranged for Albert so he could attend his brother’s funeral. A wreath was dropped from a French airplane flying overhead. Goldings expressed hope that the experience of wars started due to “misguided ideals of militarism, nationalism or imperialism” would prevent future wars of a similarly horrific scale.
Mayor Jackson thanked everyone for attending, and before the ceremony ended with a benediction from Youth Minister Katrina Forman of Union Congregational Church and a retiring of the colors, he said he felt hopeful for the future after hearing the sentiments of the two middle school students.