Most people in New Jersey politics today probably never heard of Albert Vreeland or Frank Osmers, two young New Jersey Congressmen who placed patriotism above politics and the security of our nation ahead of their own political careers.
Vreeland first demonstrated his commitment to public service as a 17-year-old, driving an ambulance for the American Red Cross during World War I. He became active in local politics in East Orange (a Republican stronghold eighty years ago) and served as an Assistant City Attorney, Municipal Prosecutor, and at age 33 a Municipal Court Judge. In 1938, at age 37, Vreeland won election to Congress, unseating freshman Rep. Edward O’Neill.
Osmers was a rising star in Bergen County politics. He was elected Borough Councilman in Haworth at age 23, Mayor at age 27, and State Assemblyman at age 28. In 1938, at age 31, he was elected to Congress, winning the open seat of Edward Kenny, a Congressman who died earlier that year.
The Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The following day, President Franklin D. Roosevelt addressed a Joint Session of Congress and asked that they declare a State of War. Vreeland and Osmers, along with all but one colleague, voted for the declaration of War. Hours later, Vreeland and Osmers, along with several other Members of Congress –including then-Rep. Lyndon Johnson — were granted leaves of absence to join the armed services.
Vreeland went on active duty in the U.S. Army and assigned to the Military Intelligence Section of the War Department. In April 1942 he was transferred to the 67th Infantry Division and commissioned a Major. Osmers enlisted as a private and was graduated from the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia., as a second lieutenant.
On July 18, 1942, President Roosevelt ordered all Members of Congress back to Washington. The Congressmen had no choice but to obey the request by their Commander-In-Chief. Anxious to serve their country during a time of war, Vreeland and Osmers both chose not to run for re-election in 1942, and upon the expiration of their terms on January 4, 1943, re-entered the Army.
Vreeland served two years in Australia and New Guinea; he was commissioned a Lieutenant Colonel on August 27, 1944, and ordered to inactive duty one year later.
Osmers went on active duty as a Second Lieutenant in the 77th Infantry Division on January 4, 1943, transferred to the 24th Corps and served in the Philippine and Okinawa campaigns and the Korean occupation. He was awarded the Bronze Star and discharged as a Major on February 22, 1946.
Osmers returned to Bergen County, where he was a jeweler, and waited for an opportunity to reclaim his seat in Congress. That came in a 1951 special election, after Harry Towe (who won Osmers’ seat in 1942) resigned to become Deputy State Attorney General. Osmers was re-elected six more times, but in the Democratic landslide of 1964, he narrowly lost his seat to Democrat Henry Helstoski, the Mayor of East Rutherford. He lost a rematch against Helstoski in 1966, and later served as Bergen County Administrator. He died in 1977, at age 69.
Vreeland served as East Orange Police Commissioner after the war, but never resumed his political career. He practiced law until his death at age 73.
Two members of the New Jersey State Senate resigned their seats in the legislature to sign up for active military service:
W. Steelman Mathis was elected to the State Senate from Ocean County in 1940. He had served in the U.S. Army during World War I, but after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, he decided his place was in defense of his country. Mathis resigned from the Senate in 1942, and at age 44 joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He returned to the Senate in a 1946 special election, became Senate President in 1955, and served in the Senate until his retirement in 1965.
Wesley Lance of Hunterdon County was elected to the State Assembly in 1937, at age 29, and to the Senate in 1941. He resigned from the Senate in 1943 to enter the U.S. Navy and served on an aircraft carrier. Lance resumed his political career in 1947 when he was elected to serve as a Delegate to the state Constitutional Convention and appointed as a Hunterdon County Court Judge. He was again elected to the State Senate in 1953, winning the nominations of both the Republican and Democratic parties, served as Senate President in 1959, and retired from the Senate in 1961. Lance, the father of Rep. Leonard Lance, died in 2007 at the age of 98.
Many other local officials traded in their public offices for military uniforms, including: Joseph Cowgill (later the Senate Minority Leader), who resigned as Camden County Surrogate to join the Navy; Henry Haines (later a State Senator), who resigned as a Councilman in Burlington City to join the Navy; and Sido Ridolfi (later the Senate President) left his post as Counsel to Governor Charles Edison to join the U.S. Coast Guard.
In 1941, Democrat Robert Meyner, a 33-year-old attorney from Phillipsburg, ran for State Senator in Warren County and lost the general election by just fifty votes. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and as a Commander of Naval gun crews on merchant vessels in the American and European theaters. He ran again for the State Senate in 1947 and won. He became Senate Minority Leader in 1950, and in 1953 won an upset victory for Governor of New Jersey against Republican Paul Troast.
This article first appeared in the New Jersey Globe on Memorial Day.