WEST ORANGE, NJ — West Orange residents gathered on the steps of Town Hall on May 30 for the town’s annual Memorial Day ceremony, honoring service members who have been lost and highlighting the next generation of the military with the West Orange High School Air Force JROTC members in attendance. At the event, township historian Joseph Fagan honored Gordon Hansen, a West Orange High School graduate who was killed during World War II.
Mayor Robert Parisi first honored Gary Englert and Ralph Panciello, longtime residents of West Orange who were heavily involved in veterans affairs in town and who helped stage the Memorial Day ceremony each year prior to their deaths. Englert died in 2015; Panciello in 2021. Parisi also recognized WOHS junior and ROTC cadet Delaney Kerr, who was named New Jersey’s Outstanding Cadet of the Year.
“That makes her one of the top 50 cadets in the country,” Parisi said at the event.
The award is given to a third-year cadet in each state every year who best exemplifies the attributes of an ROTC cadet. Kerr was chosen from a pool of 600 cadets and will wear a silver star on her uniform; she will be a senior cadet commander in the next school year.
As it normally does, the ceremony focused on a military member from West Orange. This year Fagan spoke about Gordon Hansen, a 1942 graduate of WOHS. After Hansen graduated from high school, he enlisted in the U.S. Army and began active duty the following year.
“These young students were wise beyond their years,” Fagan said of the Class of 1942. “They understood they were fighting for a future they might not see.”
According to Fagan, Hansen fought in the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. German paratroopers cut off access to the road, and Hansen and another squadron member commandeered an unarmored truck and tried to make it back to the artillery to establish contact. Their windshield was shattered, but they completed the mission and delayed the attack long enough to save other trapped soldiers. Hansen and the other soldier were awarded the Bronze Star for their efforts.
In March 1945, Hansen was running communication lines in a building that was going to be used as company headquarters. He and another soldier were killed by a bomb explosion only six weeks before Germany surrendered. Hansen was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart.
“It was received by his parents in the mail,” Fagan said. “It wasn’t pinned to his uniform, there were no trumpets sounding for him. It offered an unvarnished look at the perils of war and the effects it had on the families of soldiers.”
At the time of his death, Hansen was engaged to marry his high school girlfriend, Charlotte Christiansen. His family gave Christiansen all of his military records, letters home and other documents. She eventually moved out of West Orange, but before her death in 2008 gave the documents to her son. Her son contacted Fagan to send everything back to Hansen’s hometown.
One item that didn’t make it back initially was Hansen’s trumpet. Hansen was a WOHS marching band member while he was in high school, and Christiansen also received Hansen’s instrument from his family. She gave it to another family member, and Fagan was ultimately able to track it down. The trumpet was on loan for the ceremony, and Rob Adams played taps on the trumpet to conclude Fagan’s speech.
“A shoulder patch is all that remains,” Fagan said, explaining that Hansen’s body never made it back to New Jersey. He is buried at Lorraine American Cemetery in Saint-Avold, France. “His spirit is alive with us today in a way that no enemy can take from us.”
Photos by Amanda Valentovic