by Alan Skontra
photos by Robert Wagner
Every May a band wearing Revolutionary War era breeches and tri-corner hats, and playing fifes and drums, marches down Washington Street during Hoboken’s Memorial Day parade. The band’s leader is an 85-year-old, WWII veteran fifer named Jack O’Brien, who has marched in over 70 of the city’s parades. Just as the Memorial Day parade is a Hoboken institution, so too is O’Brien, a man of many adventures and a gifted storyteller to share them.
These days O’Brien is self-deprecating about his age, his experiences and his achievements. He tells many of his stories in both the first and third person, usually hitting a punchline that begins with someone saying “Hey O’Brien,” and ends with some crack like, “You know everyone, did you know George Washington too?”
But at 85 O’Brien is still physically active and mentally lucid. He still remembers many details of his childhood. He was born John James at 132 Monroe Street on February 21, 1928 to parents James Joseph and Elsie O’Grady, who also had two daughters, Jean and Joan. His mother was a first generation Irish-American who O’Brien said taught him discipline and to treat people well. O’Brien’s father, who served as marine in Cuba during World War I, worked for the B.F. Goodrich tire company, first in Hoboken and then in Flushing. “We never wanted,” O’Brien said. “The man worked, he was never out of a job. I was lucky, I had a good upbringing.”
The Hoboken of O’Brien’s childhood, during the Depression in the 1930’s, was a grittier scene than the city of plush condos and smart-phones today. “You lived in the streets, us old timers,” he said. “You walked, you did plenty of walking. In the old days after you finished school you ran your ass off up and down the streets, all your activity was in the streets. When it snowed you built an igloo, and that was your pleasure for the entire week until the snow melted.”
For a hobby, O’Brien picked up a popular pastime in Hoboken during the 1930’s: music. At the time there were some fifteen organized bands that marched in the city’s many parades. Every cultural and civic institution sponsored one, from churches to the police department to the Elks Lodge. “There were so many instruments around, if you opened a closet you’d get hit in the head with a bugle or a drum falling off the shelf,” O’Brien said.
Like many children, O’Brien learned music from Julius Durstewitz, who ran the city’s parks and recreation department for decades. Durstewitz had served as an officer with the Stevens Battalion, a local Hoboken contingent of the National Guard, and he taught children how to march just like soldiers. “He was my idol,” O’Brien said. “I told him I didn’t want to carry a drum anymore since it was heavy, and he said here, try a fife. I’ve been playing it ever since.”
When O’Brien was 11 he and his mates in the Jefferson Street Hoboken Playground Band got to perform at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. For the children, getting to the fair was as much of an adventure, from marching in gold and blue uniforms through Hoboken to the ferry and then taking the subway to Queens, as playing itself. The band played so well after they arrived that they won an award over other bands from all over the nation.
O’Brien has one other fond memory of the fair. “They were showing off one of those moving tracks, you know, like they have at the airport,” he said. “I thought, one day they’re going to put one of those on Washington Street!” That never happened, of course, and anyway soon after the fair O’Brien would have to forget music to embark on an even bigger adventure than going from Hoboken to Queens.
Out to Sea
On the December Sunday the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, O’Brien had been roller skating with friends in Bayonne. “We came out and some old woman, I guess she was 21, said ‘You boys, you’re going to the army, we’re at war’, O’Brien said, mimicking the woman’s voice.” “I told my friends I was going home to eat.”
O’Brien was only 13 at the time, so he had to wait to enlist. By the end of 1944 he was still too young for the army, but he was able to join the merchant marines. He had never before been on anything more than a boat across the Hudson.
He was out at sea during the war’s final months in 1945 and survived a hit on the S.S. William Bradford off the coast of North Africa. The ship eventually crossed the Suez Canal and passed through the Red Sea and around the Arabian Peninsula into the Persian Gulf. O’Brien remembers sailing into the port of Basra, Iraq on his 17th birthday. “I tell the young guys today that I was in Iraq, and they say, ‘You were where? How old are you?’” O’Brien said.
O’Brien did see some Nazis close up during a stop in a neutral port in Portuguese East Africa, and later at a stop in Iran he played ball against Russian sailors. In France on Bastille Day 1945 he heard Charles DeGaulle speak, and while hitchhiking during a leave he stumbled onto the burial plot of Joan of Arc.
He likes to joke about his adventures during the war. “I talk to kids, and they ask, ‘did you bomb anyone, did you kill anyone’,” O’Brien said. “I tell them I was in Madagascar, and their eyes light up. Remember that (2005 animated) movie Madagascar with the little furry people? They think I was out looking for those furry people!”
During his enlistment O’Brien served as a second steward in the mess hall on various ships. He crossed the north Atlantic in ten round trips and sailed around Africa and past South America once. After the fighting ended, O’Brien’s ship carried soldiers returning home and civilians fleeing war-torn Europe and looking for a new home. “My girlfriend at the time (Margaret), she asked about what we were doing, and I said we were carrying hundreds of war brides,” O’Brien said. “She said ‘Get off that ship!’”
After his discharge in 1947, O’Brien returned to Hoboken and married Margaret, a native of Abbeyfeale, Ireland. They had three children: Maureen, James and Brian.
As a civilian, O’Brien worked as a draughtsman in Weehawken building formica counter tops for Sears. He also worked for many years in the offices of RCA, which was then a pioneer in computing. “In those days computers were as big as this street,” he said. “A guy would come in and say, “Hey O’Brien, good news, the computer lasted 35 minutes today before it blew up!”
O’Brien continued to play music and also teach it. Like his idol Julius Durstewitz, he has taught hundreds of children across New Jersey and New York. “As recently as a month ago, I saw some of my 12-year-olds. Two of them are grandmothers now. I said, ‘Boy, did you get old’,” O’Brien said. “I’ve always been very fortunate to keep in touch with people.”
Though popular music has changed, even for marching parades, O’Brien said he likes to stick to the patriotic classics, especially from the American revolutionary period. Even the fife as an instrument has changed. “They make fifes with ten holes, and I said who put all these holes here, you only play with six fingers!” he said.
O’Brien has played with various military bands, and he has marched in over 200 St. Patrick’s Day parades, including two in Ireland. His greatest musical accomplishment was earning induction into the New Jersey Drum Corps Hall of Fame in 2002. “They said ‘Hey O’Brien, we hit the bottom of the barrel, we picked a fifer,” O’Brien said. “I was the first fifer ever elected.”
Time passes, and these days there aren’t many men left like Jack O’Brien. Ten years ago the actuary tables were showing more than a thousand WWII veterans dying every day. But then Jack O’Brien is not the sort of man who worries too much about actuary tables.
He lives in a Church Towers building and has no plans to leave Hoboken, not even for a typical retirement spot. “I go down to Florida, and after a few days the guys say, “there’s O’Brien, he’s looking for the concrete’,” he said. “In Hoboken people say B&R for born and raised, but I always say B&R&D, for born, raised and died.”
O’Brien enjoys spending time with his family, including his two granddaughters, Jacqueline and Amanda. He remains active with veterans groups like the American Legion, and he still appreciates mixing with old friends and meeting new ones. He’ll continue marching and playing music in parades as long as he can, especially in Hoboken’s Memorial Day parade. “It’s my home, and it’s Memorial Day,” he said. “It’s Memorial Day,” he repeated, as if that’s all the reason he needs.