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Throughout state, towns remember WWII vets

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. - As the number of World War II veterans continues to dwindle, communities around the state are taking notice.

BRIDGEWATER, N.J. - As the number of World War II veterans continues to dwindle, communities around the state are taking notice.

In 2010, New Jersey was home to 55,400 World War II veterans, about half as many as there were in 2005, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. The servicemen and women who were 18 at the war's end in 1945 are now 84.

One of New Jersey's best barometers for this shrinking veteran population might be Monroe in Middlesex County, where more than half the 40,000-plus population is made up of seniors.

When resident Jerome Setzer joined the local Veterans of Foreign War Post 262 in 1995, he became acquainted with about eight other fellow World War II veterans. Setzer, the post commander, said only four remain now.

"Most of them have passed away," he said, adding that of the few left in the township's various veterans organizations, many are frail.

What separates World War II veterans from the rest in Setzer's mind is the sense of duty. They are from a generation that did not question what needed to be done.

Serving one's country "was just an accepted thing. That's what was in store for you," he said. "You accepted it and went on."

The day after high school graduation, an 18-year-old Setzer was on a train bound for basic training. The drafted U.S. Army private never saw combat during that war, but that's not to say he wasn't prepared for the worst. He was training for an invasion of Japan that never happened.

"At the time, they expected 500,000 casualties during the invasion," he said. "One of my platoon sergeants told us to look to both sides because two of the three guys were not going to come back."

Harold Yood, 92, of Plainfield, counts himself among those lucky few who made it back home.

He browses the obituaries daily, scouting out one World War II veteran after another, he said.

Those who have discovered the retired physician's blog, "Doc's Potpourri," every now and then will get a glimpse of his service in the Battle of the Bulge, a wintry 1944 counteroffensive by the Germans in Belgium, France, and Luxembourg during which American forces suffered 75,000 casualties but Allied forces prevailed.

Drafted as a battalion surgeon at 24 in 1944, Yood was unaccustomed to life as a soldier. More quickly than he imagined, he was treating soldiers for mortar and bullet wounds, sometimes as close as 1,000 yards from the front lines, he said.

"I couldn't even keep track of them," Yood said. "When you're in combat, you work 24/7. You slept when you could."

About 15 years ago, Yood said, he wrote down some of his wartime memories at his family's insistence.

"We're getting older, and we're dying. I think that it's probably of interest to family members to know these things. But I'm sure they've been embellished by everyone who writes them," he said and laughed.

Communities around the state are seeing to it that these veterans and their stories become permanent fixtures long after they are gone.

In South Brunswick, high school students have teamed with the Office on Aging and the senior organization Aging in Place Partnerships to see the mission through.

Over the last two years, students have documented the stories of more than 30 local veterans, most of whom are from the World War II era, the Office on Aging's director, Christine Wildemuth, said.

From the new partnership, and with the help of township social worker Caryl Greenberg, photos, videos, and written records, as well as a scripted play (partly based on these veterans' experiences) have been compiled, Wildemuth said.

Additionally, township officials have begun a campaign to properly honor its late veterans, some of whom lost their lives while serving in World War II, by naming streets for them.

"They are very important parts of history," Wildemuth said. "It's important to honor what they did."