A much-loved memorial to Union Beach’s war dead was hoisted back into place on Monday, some 19 months after it was displaced and dismembered by superstorm Sandy.
The doughboy, a 6-foot granite statue of a World War I soldier, had stood on its plinth along the Shore town’s waterfront since 1994 but was knocked to the ground and broken into five pieces by the overwhelming power of Sandy’s storm surge on Oct. 29, 2012.
The statue, weighing almost 700 pounds, was reinstalled as the centerpiece of the town’s war memorial just in time for Memorial Day after a month-long restoration that included reattaching its severed legs, mending a broken ankle, rebuilding a stone rifle, and repairing the battered brim of its hat.
About a dozen townspeople gathered to watch four technicians from Materials Conservation, a Philadelphia-based architectural conservation company, lift the doughboy back on to its granite base overlooking Raritan Bay.
The soldier was sorely missed, the spectators said, and his return marked a big step in the efforts of this blue-collar town to return to normal after losing around 350 of its 2,200 homes during and after the storm.
“I’ve been here my whole life, so I’ve walked past it 50 times a day,” said Tom Flores, 43, a construction contractor who came to watch the reinstallation. “When it’s here you don’t notice it, but when it’s not here you notice it. It’s the little things that give you a sense of normalcy.”
Flores, who lost his house in the storm, said he was looking forward to the town’s Memorial Day parade when marchers traditionally pause in front of the statue and fire a 21-gun salute over it and six surrounding memorials to townspeople who gave their lives in Iraq, Vietnam, Korea, and both World Wars.
Some of the stone memorials, arranged in a semicircle around the doughboy, are scratched from being knocked over by the storm. Two plaques bearing some names of the war dead were also damaged by Sandy and are still being restored,
Mayor Paul Smith said the repair and reinstallation cost around $14,000, a sum that wasn’t easy to find but which was seen as worthwhile because of the importance of the statue to the town’s history, and to its efforts to rebuild after the storm.
Speaking across the street from several empty lots where houses stood before Sandy, Smith said the repair was a priority because of the statue’s sentimental value, “and because of the veterans.”
He predicted the statue will help the process of storm recovery in a town where some residents are still not back in their homes, and are awaiting payments from insurance companies or government assistance.
Smith, who works as a sample shipper for a fragrance company, said there had been no discussion of moving the statue, or the whole memorial, away from the shore to where it would be less exposed to the fiercer storms and higher seas that are expected to result from climate change.
“He’s been here forever and he should still be here,” said Smith, who has lived in Union Beach for 57 of his 60 years.
At around 3 p.m. Monday, the doughboy was lowered back onto the plinth from a temporary scaffold. The statue, which had previously just rested on its stone base, is now fixed in place with stainless steel pins joined to the stone with epoxy, making it more likely to survive the next major storm.
Although the statue depicts a World War I soldier, it was bought by the town as a memorial to World War II, and was originally installed outside the Borough Hall in 1947. It remained there until 1994 when the current war memorial was created, said Frank Wells, vice commander of the town’s American Legion post.
The term "doughboy" refers to soldiers in the Army or Marine Corps, and is believed to originate from the Mexican-American War of the mid-19th century.
Jackie Shipley, a police dispatcher who has lived in the town all her life, said the storm filled her house with five feet of water, and the damage was so severe, the property had to be demolished. She said she has qualified for $150,000 in state aid to rebuild but has not yet received the money, and so is still living with friends.
Shipley, 43, said the doughboy’s return marks an important stage in the town’s post-Sandy recovery “It’s like a staple, it has to be here for the town,” she said. ‘It needs to come back.”
Toby Canfield, a conservation technician who headed the restoration, said he had worked on the project since April and that it had been a challenge to repair the doughboy’s broken knees and left ankle because of the weight of the rest of the statue. He said he had to install pins inside soldier’s legs and gun in order to rejoin the fragments.
The hardness of the granite required the use of diamond-tipped cutters, he said.
Canfield said the restoration was unusual because it required working on the whole statue rather than the pieces of statues that are typically broken off by vandalism. “It’s a little easier to just put a head back on,” he said.
“It’s always really special to work on something like this because it means so much to people,” he said. “They walk past it every day and they want to see us fixing it, and that really makes us feel special about putting it back together. That’s what makes it special for us.”