• jamesburg
  • Middlesex
  • August 20, 1946
  • March 21, 1967
  • Army
  • RANK:
  • PFC
  • KIA
  • South Vietnam


Jan J. Grabowski, Jr. was born on August 20, 1946, to Betty and Jan Grabowski. He lived in Monroe Township. He played drums and sang in a band, C.B and the Triumphs.

He entered the US Army and attained the rank of Private First Class (PFC). Grabowski left for Vietnam from Fort Dix, NJ, on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1967.

He was killed on March 21, 1967, a few months short of his 21st birthday, at Bong Son, Vietnam.

He is buried in St. James Cemetery.

There is a Jamesburg Township street named after him.

The following article, written by Joseph Sapia, appeared in the Cranberry Press on February 19, 1992.

Memory of fallen vet shines on

Along the Conrail railroad between Jamesburg and Helmetta, a weathered piece of wood hangs askew on a dying tree. Consider it a memorial to Jan Grabowski, one of the boys who had a tree house at the site years ago.

It is not Jan’s only memorial. There is a township street named after him, a monument in Washington bearing his name and a grave marker in St. James Cemetery.

But it is the tree house-remnant that truly depicts who Jan was: a kid from the old neighborhood who got killed in the Vietnam War.

We all grew up in Czapigaville, a group of houses that has the Monroe-Helmetta boundary running through it: Jan, Buddy Young, Curtie Benson, Allan Schiano, D.D. Reid and me.

Jan got killed in Southeast Asia in 1967, a few months short of his 21st birthday. Although a quarter-century has passed, we have distinct memories of him.

Jan, short and reminding me of the late actor Sal Mineo, was a character. He could go “up and down the street and make Satan like him,” said Mr. Schiano, 45.

“Jan was such a personality,” said Mr. Benson, 42.

“I tell my (teen-age) son about him today,” said Mr. Young, 46. “…He was always getting himself in a jam.”

Betty Fusco Grabowski, 70, recalled how, once, her son was talking to his girlfriend on a pay telephone at the nearby Triangle tavern (now the Forest Manor). Without anyone from the Triangle realizing Jan was there, the business closed for the night, locking Jan inside.

Another time, while hunting at Helmetta Pond with Mr. Young, Jan wanted to see what would happen if he stuck a shotgun in the water and fired it. He damaged his father’s .12 gauge, double-barrel shotgun.

“Jan wouldn’t be afraid to try anything, even if it got him in trouble. It didn’t make a difference,” Mr. Schiano said.

“He was a brat,” said Mr. Benson’s 77-year-old mother, Martha Moore, who still keeps newspaper stories of Jan’s death, “but he was a lovable brat.”

“You just couldn’t be mad at Jan for too long,” said Ms. Reid, 46, Mrs. Moore’s niece who lived just a few houses away from Jan. “…He wasn’t vicious and he wasn’t really nasty. He’d just do bratty things. (But) he’d smile, wink and it was over.”

Only 10 when Jan got killed, I remember how he bought a circa 1942 Ford pick-up and had to park it across the street from his house because his father, Jan, Sr., now 74, would not let him keep it in the yard. For me, it was neat to bicycle around the block and hang out with this older kid – who did not tell me to get lost – as he tinkered with the truck.

“Mechanically, Jan was as good as anybody,” Mr. Young said. “Musically, he had a talent.”

Jan played drums and sang in a band, C.B. and the Triumphs, with Mr. Benson. Today, Curtie Benson, who lives in Manalapan, still plays in a band, Triple X.

D.D. Reid is an internal auditor living in South Jersey and Buddy Young, a Hopewell Township resident, is a sales manager for a St. Louis company. Although no longer in Czapigaville, Allan Schiano and I still live in Monroe. He is a building and grounds supervisor for Middlesex County government and I am a newspaper reporter.

Jan’s last career was as a soldier in the Army. Looking back, some think Jan, who was not academically inclined, may have had a learning disability.

“But who knew back then?” his mother said.

If not academically talented, Jan had other positive characteristics. Mr. Schiano described him as “an extremely loving person”; Jan was “very happy-go-lucky” and “very street smart” and “had a lot of ingenuity,” according to Mr. Benson; Ms. Reid said he was a “sweetie.”

Now, in a sense, it does not matter. Pfc. Jan J. Grabowski, Jr. got killed at Bong Son, Vietnam, March 21, 1967, which that year was the first day of spring.

“I could still see him in my house,” said Mrs. Moore, recalling Jan just before he shipped out overseas. “He had those brown eyes. He said, ‘I won’t be back.’ …He said, ‘You’re not going to see me anymore.’”

“Jan knew he wasn’t coming back,” Mr. Schiano said. “Isn’t that ironic?” It’s cold when you think about it.”

The last time Mrs. Grabowski saw her only child alive was 25 years ago last Friday – Valentine’s Day, the day he shipped out of Fort Dix for Vietnam. The last time she spoke to him was hours later when, enroute to Southeast Asia, he phoned from San Francisco.

While the Army said Jan was killed by enemy fire, Mrs. Grabowski said she later learned from a serviceman who served with Jan that he actually died of friendly fire. (No information was available immediately from the federal government in a recent check on the background of Jan’s death.)

“I wanted to know how he died,” Mrs. Grabowski said. “I wanted to know if he suffered. But he died instantly.”

Mrs. Grabowski was home, recuperating from a recent hospitalization when she learned of Jan’s death.

“Two soldiers came here, one stayed in the car. But I knew as soon as I opened that door,” she said.

Mr. Young, stationed with the Army in Germany, learned through a letter.

“It was like shock, disbelief. I remember feeling real sick. Just an ugly feeling,” he said.

Mr. Benson was a freshman at Wilkes College in northeastern Pennsylvania.

“I was devastated, definitely,” he said. “I still remember the funeral. It was the longest procession I ever saw.”

“Somebody counted the cars in the funeral – there was 72,” Mrs. Grabowski said.

“I was so disturbed when Jan died (that) I couldn’t go to the funeral,” Mr. Schiano said. “I didn’t go to his grave for a year or so after. I mean, we were close.”

“I went to see Jan’s grave every day for five years,” said Mrs. Grabowski, who began crying when talking about her son recently. “I don’t go as often as I used to because I’m sick. I have arthritis and have a lot of other things wrong.”

I attended Jan’s military burial with another kid of my age from the neighborhood. Years later, in 1987, I visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., and found Jan’s name – on Panel 17-east Line 3.

In June, the Monroe Township Council renamed Cherry Blossom Drive in the new Forest View development “Grabowski Court” and Orchard Terrace “Ives Court.”

Army Spec. 4 Richard Ives, 20, another township resident got killed after only two weeks in Vietnam in 1966. (Jan served on the honor guard at Mr. Ives’ funeral.) On Nov. 9, a ceremony at Thompson Park’s veteran’s monument honored Mr. Ives and Jan.

Jan left for Vietnam on Valentine’s Day, got killed on the first day of spring and was buried on April Fool’s Day…a day of love, new life and a foolish death.

I recently visited Jan’s grave where two wooden drumsticks placed by a friend at Christmas-time stood stuck in the ground in front of his gravestone. Then, I walked through Forest View and visited Czapigaville, where Grabowski, Benson-Moore, Young, Reid and my family members still live.

Czapigaville, Jan’s grave and Forest View are near each other, along with the tree house-remnant.

Mr. Benson built the tree house and, with Jan, expanded it into a one-and-a-half story structure. Long ago, the tree house held legendary status with neighborhood kids; It was state-of-the-art, with a car battery generating a radio.

Today, beside the board hanging from the oak tree, old boards litter the ground. Presumably, all are from Jan’s old tree house.

As for the double-trunk oak, it is a model of contradictions. Woodpeckers have pecked holes in its decay; but a few healthy-looking branches sprout high up, persisting with life. Fungus, a sign of death, grows on it; But so does lichen, an indicator of fresh air. If left alone, the tree will decay enough to fall down; But then its decay will fertilize the ground, creating a carpet for new life.

It is all kind of symbolic.

Sources: Tom Simpson (cousin), Joe Sapia (friend) and NJVVMF.


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