What do Clara Barton, Thomas Paine and John Quincy Adams have in common? At one time or another, they all visited or lived in Bordentown. In fact, Thomas Paine was such a fan of the city near the Delaware River that he once said he’d “rather see my horse Buttons eating the grass of Bordentown then all the pomp and show of Europe.”
As many might already know, the city, which was first inhabited in 1682 by English Quaker Thomas Farnsworth, is steeped in transportation history, becoming a major colonial transportation hub for the new United States, and occupied by British Forces in 1777 and 1778. In the mid-1800s, it was noted for the first movement of a steam engine on rails, just outside the town, the “John Bull” engine, which is now housed at the Smithsonian.
But its military history is what is particularly interesting to many New Jersey residents and on National Pearl Harbor Remembrance Day (Dec. 7), the Bordentown Historical Society partners with the Armed Forces Heritage Museum for a presentation called “Bridge Over the River Kwai.” The Bordentown Historical Society, founded in 1930, was created to preserve and educate the public about the rich history of this New Jersey town, and includes history and garden tours, historical photos, events and special exhibits. The Dec. 7 day presentation, which includes a video and Q&A session, would not have been possible without the Armed Forces Heritage Museum.
The Armed Forces Heritage Museum, also known as the AFHM, first formed in 2010, and was created to preserve and educate the public on the history and heritage of the Armed Forces in New Jersey. Part of the mandate of the museum is a Living History Project, which preserves, through images, videos and more, key members of the military in the South Jersey area who played significant roles in some of the country’s major conflicts.
The AFHM’s Pearl Harbor Day event will highlight a veteran of the United States Navy, Howard Brooks, who lived in Mount Laurel until he passed away in 2016 at the age of 93, and had been a Japanese POW during World War ll. During his imprisonment, he helped build the Burma Railroad in 1942, the subject of the 1957 Academy-Award winning film, Bridge on the River Kwai, with William Holden and Alec Guinness.
The program, which will be held at the Bordentown Township Senior Center on Dec. 7 at 2 p.m., will reveal, through a compelling video of Brooks, his experience on the USS Houston in 1942 when they encountered a Japanese Navy flotilla off the coast of the Philippines. The seamen tried to fight the Japanese off, but the ship ultimately sunk in what became known as the Battle of Sunda Strait. In the video, Howard describes how he clung to a raft for three days before being taken captive, and then, how he was forced to build the Malaysia-Burma railroad, which became known as the Death Railway, because it cost the lives of more than 12,000 Allied POWS. Brooks managed to survive imprisonment and life on the River Kwai, and returned home at the end of the war.
His wife, Sylvia Brooks, will be on hand for the event to add information and answer questions after the presentation. How he endured life as a prisoner for more than 3 years is something, AFHM chairman Roy Plummer says, everyone will want to hear.
This program and others are able to move to various locations because the AFHM is itself mobile. As Plummer, a Bordentown resident and chairman of the museum’s board tells it, “This is not a fixed museum. The idea first started out as a brick-and-mortar building, but the federal land where we wanted to build it just wouldn’t allow for the structure, so then we came up with the idea to go with a mobile museum route,” he explains. The museum is committed to continuing its role of educating the public on the military history of New Jersey and the surrounding region.”
To that end, the museum, has created several impressive programs. Using a moveable stage, volunteers from the museum are able to go from town to town with a 32-foot panel displaying six exhibits, reader rails, videos and monitors that include everything from the history of the military in New Jersey to the building of Camp Dix as well as various military missions and technologies used in the state.
The museum was pretty much a success from the get-go: “Requests outrun the ability to entertain and provide them,” says Plummer. Presentations have included the 2015 Veterans Day event at Shawnee High School in Medford, where veterans from various wars spoke to the students; visits to the Burlington County Farm Fair for the last three years; the Italian-American Festival at Mercer County Park; and a program at Rider College for Veteran’s Day week.
“We started getting comments from people, family members and neighbors who knew servicemen and women that served in World War ll or Vietnam saying, “you gotta hear this guy’s story,” so we started to interview individuals.” The museum now houses more than two dozen videos of these interviews, which include a Holocaust survivor and World War ll hero, someone that worked on the Vietnam Baby Lift to save babies found in war-torn Vietnam, and others discussing events, both harrowing and victorious, from various wars.
Looking ahead, Plummer, who served in the U.S. Army Ordnance Corps, is working on a larger mobile setting for the museum.
“The goal is to get a 53-foot -trailer unit with about 1,000 square feet of museum space, covering the history of military in New Jersey for the past 200 years. We started some strategic planning sessions to get our arms around that and start putting storyboards together,” he explains.
But for now, the mobile units and speaker programs and videos provide both sobering and compelling insight for audiences who want to learn more about the impact military men and women of New Jersey have made around the world.
“What many people do not realize is that, joint base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst is the state’s second-largest employer in New Jersey,” Plummer said.
That makes for the military having a mighty important presence in the Garden State.