Memorial Day – Hopewell’s First Fatality in WW II

This is the story of how the news came to Hopewell of its first son who was killed in World War II – Irvin D. Van Nest, Jr. (1916-1943).

Hw Herald 3/17/1943
Hw Herald 3/17/1943

The story is told by Dean Ashton, who published over 50 issues of his “Hopewell News” news-sheet during the war, with a distribution of over 500 copies to Hopewell people in the armed forces. After the war, Ashton extended this work into a book, Be It Ever So Humble, The Story of Hopewell, New Jersey, and its Servicemen During World War II, published in 1947 (see earlier post).

This extract is from Chapter IV in the book – “Gold Stars.” Ashton reports that Hopewell Borough alone provided more than 200 men and women for the Armed Forces.

The scene takes place at the barber shop of Harry Cox and Harry Cray at 6 Seminary Avenue. After the death of Harry Cox in 1945, Ashton reported that “Harry Cox felt especially close to the fellows in military service, for he had seen most of them grow up from the time when they came in for their first haircut and squirmed through fear that they would not live through the ordeal. By actual count, more than one hundred of the shop’s customers were in the armed forces during the war.”

Irvin D. Van Nest, Jr.

(Private, First Class)
– Died February 15, 1943, North Africa –

Squinting his eyes against the glare of the overhead light, Harry Cox glanced at the clock in the Cox & Cray barber shop on Seminary Avenue.

“Eight o’clock – time to close up,” he remarked to his partner, Harry B. Cray, who was applying an open-blade razor expertly to the nape of a customer’s neck. Cox deserted his own patron momentarily to snap the lock on the door and lower the shades, shutting off a view of the shop’s interior from the street. He glanced at the “waiting row” which consisted of two “hair-cuts.” Cox returned to his own barber-chair and his scissors resumed their nervous chatter.

Three or four minutes went hand-in-hand into oblivion. Someone rattled the doorknob and the thud of a man’s shoulder against the closed door could be heard distinctly. Cox grunted, went to the door and pulled the curtain slightly aside. A man’s deep voice was heard.

“Let me in a minute, Harry,” the man said. To no one in particular, Cox commented:

“It’s Harry Wolfe – wonder what he wants?”

He released the catch on the door and admitted Wolfe, a towering figure, whose clothes suggested that he had just laid aside his plumber’s tools. Wolfe avoided Cox’s inquiring glance. Instead, he paced across the shop two or three times, staring at the floor. One hand seemed to be glued inside his coat pocket.

“Anything wrong, Harry?” Cox finally asked.

Wolfe hesitated, obviously troubled. His hand finally came clear of his pocket, revealing a yellow envelope. He surrendered it to Cox, then turned his face away. Cox pulled out a telegram, turning to avoid his own shadow. The message took only a second to read.

“My God, Harry – you don’t mean it – Irvin Van Nest – killed in action!” he gasped.

Wolfe swallowed hard and rubbed his eyes with the back of his fist. Cox turned away but the wide mirror in front of his customer reflected the tightened muscles in his own face. Cray, with a son in the service, ceased his labors. The customers in the shop were attentive but silent.

“Did this just come, Harry?” Cox asked, breaking the silence.

“Yes – I just came – from the station,” Wolfe replied jerkily, struggling to get his voice under control. “They called me up – asked me to come over – and then they gave me this. They didn’t want to send it over – to his – mother.”

Shaking his head as if he could nullify the news, Cox said: “This will be a terrible blow to her.” Wolfe’s lips tightened. He continued to gaze at the floor. Finally he added: “Yes – and I don’t know how – to tell it to her.”

He resumed his melancholy pacing. But gradually he began to steel his nerves. Others in the shop asked for details. But information was painfully lacking in the telegram and re-reading showed that it stated little more than the fact that Irvin D. Van Nest had been killed in North Africa on February 15, 1943. Questions began to fly concerning Irvin, the only son of Mrs. Rena Van Nest, sister-in-law of Wolfe. The latter seemed to gain further reassurance as he answered. In a few minutes, he was better prepared to carry out his heart-breaking errand, and departed.

Thus it was that news came to Hopewell of the first Hopewell boy who lost his life in World War II. Irvin Van Nest, a boy – at least he seemed still a boy to Hopewell friends and acquaintances who had seen him grow up – encouraged by a mother who had been widowed when he was quite young, and finding a way despite financial handicaps to enter Cornell University and receive two years’ training.

Be It Ever So Humble, Dean Ashton (1947), Chapter IV – Gold Stars

Related Media

The Hopewell Memorial Day album in the Image Galley has over 140 images of parades from the 1950s to 2000s, which also provide views of the streetscapes and buildings as they appeared at the times.

The History Project YouTube Channel contains videos of 1946 and 1946 Memorial Day parades in Hopewell after World War II, including honor salutes and baseball games.

If you know of other photos, documents, and information on Hopewell history, please contact us so we can help share and preserve them.

More on Memorial Day Activities

Posts on Memorial Day parades and activities
See also Town Events and Veterans Organizations

Memorial Day Parades

Memorial Day and Related History

Memorial Day Observances

Veterans Organizations


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