|Tony Orlando - A true patriot – was dedicated to The Raritan GIs during World War II
Raritan Tavern Owner Tony Orlando (1892- 1979) is remembered for the thousands of letters and hundreds of packages that he sent to the Raritan GIs during World War II. He was born in Angri, Italy in the province of Salerno. In 1902 he came to this country with his mother and seven other children. They first settled in Newark, and then they came to Raritan in 1909.
Tony would meet and marry a local Raritan girl Anna Barone who was also born in Italy. As a young man he worked at his father-in-law’s hotel/tavern which was located on Somerset Street in Raritan. Together with his wife they would have 10 children. The Four boys were named Anthony, Matthew, Joseph, and Al. The six girls were Ann, Rose, Tess, Joan, Catherine, and Mary. (Today 4 of his daughters survive -Ann Schaub and Rose Tozzi live in Raritan, Joan Perdon in Bound Brook, and Tess Kinney in Somerville.)
Having learned the tavern business during the year’s he worked for his father-in-law, Tony started his own tavern business after Prohibition ended in 1933. He acquired the first borough liquor license and converted a vacant church that stood at 19 Wall Street into what he named The Centennial Tavern. The family lived in the upstairs of the tavern.
The tavern had two sections, a bar area in the front and a banquet room in the back. Thus Raritan residents could stop in the bar area any day for a beer and some food. Their special occasions such as weddings, communions, and birthday parties were held in the banquet room. For decades his place served as Raritan’s only banquet hall.
Tony Orlando’s idea to dedicate himself to supporting the Raritan boys serving in World War II began just after the U.S. entered the war. He was at church one day when he overheard a woman crying while praying aloud asking God to see that her son would return safely from the war. He was very moved by this, thus he decided then that he would do whatever he could to help the boys in the service while they were away from home fighting for our freedom.
His Centennial Tavern soon became a tribute the local boys fighting the war. He decorated the walls with the pictures of the Raritan boys who were serving in the military. In addition to the military portraits, many letters, postcards, and pictures sent back from distance places were displayed on the walls at the tavern. One special section was for the Raritan guys who were killed in action. The inscription above the photos read “In Memory of the Boys Who Made the Supreme Sacrifice”. That section would grow to 24 Raritan boys. For each of these heroes who perished, Tony made a special framed portrait that he gave to the family members.
Tony started sending letters to the Raritan boys at a rate of several letters a day. It was estimated that he sent over two thousand letters to the local servicemen overseas. In addition to the letters, Tony also sent hundreds of packages. To assist in this, Tony organized The Raritan Victory Club which help collect and box the packages. The items sent included cigarettes, snacks, and much needed supplies. To the soldiers overseas these packages were a godsend, as life in wartime brought few comforts. A few extra smokes, a pack of nuts, or a bag of candy brightened up their day. The soldiers wrote back, expressing their thanks for the “swell” package they received. Three hundred of these letters to Tony Orlando survive today. They all can be viewed online at www.raritan-online.com. For those senior citizens who do not use a computer, copies of all these letters can be found at The Raritan Library upstairs in the John Basilone Museum.
Some of the packages sent overseas went to two of Tony’s sons who were in the military. Private Matthew Orlando was with Patton’s Third Army in Germany. While Seaman First Class Anthony Jr. served with an amphibious unit on a ship in the South Pacific.
When soldiers on leave came to The Centennial Tavern their drinks were “on the house”. Tony would say years later “While they were serving their country, I could at least serve them a beer.” The veterans loved the red carpet treatment and often stopped by the tavern, not just for a beer, but to talk with Tony who many came to admire as a father figure.
Tony would say about the boys during WWII “I pray for them every day, as if they were my own children, and so I have come think of them as my sons.”
One of his accomplishments was to establish a special Memorial Day mass to honor those that were killed in the war. This traditional mass was celebrated for decades after the war.
When World War II officially ended on August 14th, 1945, Tony that evening quickly organized a parade and then welcomed everyone to his place for a tremendous celebration. Eleven months later, on July 6th, 1946, when all the boys arrived home from overseas, Tony and The Raritan Victory Club threw a home-coming party for 675 Raritan GIs. The party was on Dukes Estate. They hired professional caterers and a six piece band. The boys enjoyed themselves with plenty of fun activities such as baseball, greased pole climbing, and a friendly tug-of-war contest between the Army and the Navy. A professional photographer was hired, many good pictures of this event were taken. They can be seen online at www.raritan-online.com.
On June 30th, 1957, Raritan honored Tony Orlando for his contributions to the Raritan GIs during World War II. Six hundred friends along with family members gathered at the Martinsville Inn for a testimonial dinner in his honor. One speaker at the event former county judge George Allgair summed it up, “We are here today paying respect to a humble man because we all love him. The work he has done is certainly worthy of much praise and this turnout is a real tribute to a man who has done so much for the welfare of others”. At the dinner, Tony was presented with a portrait of himself. Toward the end of the dinner Tony took to the microphone to address the crowd. His simple words of thanks brought tears to the eyes of many former GIs who remembered his letters and packages that kept up their moral during the dark days of war when their freedom and survival were at stake.
Tony retired in the late 1960s and the tavern was sold to the Morella family who lived on Bell Avenue in Raritan. The tavern continued on for several years, but in February, 1975, a fire destroyed the building. No one was injured, but a landmark in Raritan was gone. The site was rebuilt as a home. Today, there is no hint that a tavern, especially one that is such an important part of Raritan’s history was once there.
Remembering Tony Orlando
Looking through the collection of World War II letters that were written to Tony, only 2 servicemen are known to be alive today. This author was fortunate to be able to talk with both of them. One is Michael DeCicco who served in the Navy during the war. Michael was at Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941, the day of the Japanese attack. Serving aboard the USS Helena he helped fight off the sneak attack. Early in 1942 Michael, was granted a 30 day survivors leave and was able to fly home. Since he had been at Pearl Harbor and he was the first soldier to return home from the war, he received a lot of attention. Tony Orlando, in one of his first acts for the Raritan servicemen, held a dinner in his honor at the Centennial Tavern. Michael recalled Tony Orlando to be a wonderful man. He truly had the interests at heart for all the Raritan guys in the service. He feels fortunate to have known him.
One of the other surviving Raritan GIs whose letters are found in the Tony Orlando collection is Joe Sian. Joe served in the Navy on the U.S. Pasadena which saw action in the Pacific. Joe Sian was good friends with Tony Orlando. They often wrote to each other. He says Tony was “One hell of a nice guy. Everybody liked him. A great old man.” Over the decades Joe hung out at the tavern quite often. He said “The Centennial Tavern was always a good deal.” Joe also recalls the picnic that Tony had for the servicemen in 1946 on Dukes property. He remembers how hundreds of Raritan guys were there having a good time with activities such as pole climbing and tug-a-war.
Today’s mayor, Jo-Ann Liptak said “I remember Mr. Orlando as a kind, generous, and gentle man. I was best friends with his granddaughter Trina DeCastro when we were in the 6th grade. After school we would often go to the bar and grill and drink soda and eat pizza. He was so delighted to have us there because he loved to dote on his granddaughter.” She also recalled the social aspect of the tavern as she says “ It was THE place to go after the 6th grade dances at Washington School.”
John Pacifico recalled Tony Orlando. “He was a very kind, generous man. A true gentleman who was outgoing, respected, and personable. Everybody who ever went to his tavern was welcome. No one had an un-kind word to say about him.” Pacifico also recalled how The Centennial Tavern played a vital role in the lives of Raritan residents as its banquet room served countless events. Communions, weddings, and other special occasions were held there for decades. It was the only banquet hall in Raritan. John further points out that we need a place like that in town today. Today a road in Raritan, Orlando Drive, is named after Tony Orlando. It serves as a small tribute to a man who made such a difference. Always a modest man, he had a simple philosophy as he was once quoted “If you do some good and you brag about it, it’s no good at all.”