Meet Me at the V! A place where everybody knows your name
Among the ornate architecture of Cape May is a nondescript cinder block building tucked into a small side street, with green painted letters on the front of the building identifying it as the VFW Post 386. In this small unassuming monument, a rich history of its own and long-standing traditions are a source of pride among the waning membership. VFW Post 386 has been the setting for much-needed comradery among its members, brothers-in-arms who have sought and found support and comfort in sharing common experiences, serving in the military in foreign lands. This building has been the location of numerous fundraisers for the community, blood drives, weddings, and post-funeral luncheons. The memories inside this modest edifice rival the legendary poppies in the poem “In Flanders Fields.”
The official full name of the Cape May VFW, as noted on the side of the building, includes names of local veterans who died in battle: Walker Peterson in World War II and Albert Little in the Korean War. Cape May Peterson-Little Post 386 has gone through many changes over the years and now is home to three veteran organizations: the VFW, the American Legion, and finally, the Veterans Home Association, the organization responsible for all business operations on site. Today the building is located at 429 Congress Street, but it hasn’t always been at this location.
Cape May’s VFW charter was established on November 25, 1933. The original location was adjacent to Congress Hall at the corner of Perry and Washington, but back in the early 1960s, a new location was established. The city proposed trading locations to make more space for the shopping district. The old Cape May Laundry was offered as the new locale for the VFW. It was no small task transforming an industrial space into a social club, complete with meeting spaces.
According to the Commander of the Cape May VFW, Lee Prickett, U.S. Army Sergeant E5; Vietnam Veteran, most of the required renovations were planned and executed by a local veteran, Ralph Gallagher, who renovated the space, gratis. “The kitchen, bathrooms, floors, everything, was renovated by Ralph Gallagher. He led a few other volunteers and transformed a laundry facility into essentially what you see today when you walk into the VFW. Right where the bar stands now, there was a trough where all the water from the washing machines used to drain. He did all that work out of the goodness of his heart.” Ralph Gallagher exemplified their motto, “Serving those who served.”
The Cape May American Legion was originally chartered in 1924 and located on Lafayette Street, currently Elaine’s Restaurant. Later, they were moved to a small brick building just a few doors from their current location. The merging of locations for the VFW and the American Legion was due to economic challenges. Today they work hand in hand in bettering the community. To understand the immense impact of these organizations, one can look at their rich history and the growth—and subsequent decline—over the years.
The Veterans of Foreign Wars was founded in 1899, because of the veterans of the Spanish-American War and the Philippine and Cuba campaigns. Many of those veterans needed medical care, had no financial compensation, and were left to fend for themselves. They were drawn together by similar experiences, the kind that create bonds and a need for comradery. Veterans banded together to secure their benefits and fight for their own rights. This band of military men and women came to eventually be known as the VFW. Today, national membership stands at more than 1.5 million members, including its Auxiliary.
The national VFW was a driving force in establishing the Veterans Administration, securing aid to veterans exposed to Agent Orange and those diagnosed with Gulf War Syndrome. In 2008 the VFW helped secure the passing of a GI Bill for the 21st century, “giving expanded educational benefits to America’s active-duty service members.” Additionally, the VFW spearheaded the Veterans Access and Accountability Act of 2014, with a mission to secure fair outcomes for veterans. This is a continuous effort, and a focus on improving VA medical services for women veterans, according to vfw.org. The American Legion was chartered in 1919, following World War I, with a focus on service to veterans. The organization has influenced social change in the U.S. and is responsible for supporting important patriotic programs for youth. The American Legion is the chartering agency for the Boy Scouts of America, according to legion.org.
According to the National VFW, vfw.org, symbols that represent these organizations—military seal designs—hold significant meaning. The VFW official seal includes the crusader’s cross, known as the Cross of Malta, to “establish a new brotherhood of crusaders from all walks of life who have gone into battlefields around the world to fight for human rights.” The cross has eight points, symbolizing the beatitudes expressed in the Sermon on the Mount: Blessed are the poor in spirit, the meek, the pure, the merciful, the peacemakers, those who mourn, seek righteousness, and are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. The cross has rays radiating from the center to “emphasize the vigor and warmth with which the present-day brother/sisterhood is pledged to defend the nation and to extend its mercy.” In the center, the American Eagle represents the strength and freedom of Americans.
The poppy is a familiar symbol of the American Legion. The American Legion has distributed poppies since the 1920s, to raise awareness and support for our nation’s veterans and active-duty members. The red poppy symbolizes the blood shed during battle based on the wartime poem “In Flanders Fields,” written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, M.D. The American Legion representatives ask for donations in return for the red silk poppies. (You can also get one at the local VFW, all around the bar area in donation cans.) Ron Stenlake, U. S. Navy Veteran; Second Class QuarterMaster; Vietnam Veteran, the Commander of the Cape May American Legion for 30 years now, explained that the poppy donations go directly to local veterans who are struggling. When asked what he found most valuable about being a part of this organization, without hesitation, he replied, “The comradery and the chance to help fellow veterans.”
When we pause to publicly honor veterans throughout the year, it’s the VFW and the American Legion that we can thank for organizing these events. The Cape May VFW and American Legion organize and execute all military memorial events in Cape May, including poppy sales, placing wreaths on graves of veterans at Cold Spring Cemetery, and placing over 2000 flags on graves of veterans at cemeteries throughout Lower Township. The right arm of the VFW is the VFW Auxiliary. Members of the Auxiliary are relatives: husbands, wives, children, and parents of veterans who served in a location of foreign conflict. Nationally, Auxiliary members have volunteered and raised millions for veterans and their families, including scholarship programs for our nation’s youth, conducting patriotic programs, and VA medical system volunteerism efforts.
“WE WANT YOU!”
To the members of Cape May VFW, it is not just a tavern. It is a place where members can go to experience comradery. Walking inside “the V” feels like walking into a favorite neighborhood watering hole. It’s the only place in town with pool tables in addition to shuffleboard, pinball machines, and a jukebox. The unofficial slogan emblazoned on the t-shirts they sell exclaim “Meet me at the “V!” To the right of the bar are tables for dining and to the left, there are more tables and a dance floor that has seen many moves over the years. There is a full-service kitchen with a simple menu offering comfort food, and the draft beer selection at the full bar is impressive…and cold. The prices make it an affordable option for members and their guests to enjoy. However, membership has dwindled over the years. If you know, then you know what it means when you hear “Meet me at the V!” This best-kept secret needs to be told, and now is the time.
National VFW membership numbers have dropped by 50% since 1992, according to an article on miltary.com, “VFW Posts are Dying. They Need Hesitant 9/11 Vets to Fill the Void.” Cape May’s VFW reflects these statistics as well. The Cape May VFW demonstrates the core values of the National VFW: “Placing the interests of members first; treating donors as partners in their cause; promoting patriotism; honoring military service; ensuring the care of veterans and their families; serve the community; promoting a positive image; and respecting the diversity of veteran opinions.”
Commander Prickett said, “It’s my honor to serve as Commander at VFW post 386 for the past three years, but I cannot help but notice that our membership is aging, and we are in dire need of young, energetic individuals to join. We accept new memberships all the time.”
You do not have to be a veteran. Non-veterans may join as Home Association Members. He continued with an invitation to “Come on in! Fill out an application and get a current member to sponsor you.” All new members are considered by the board and once approved, the initial fee is $50 per year and an early-bird renewal deal at $40 per year if you renew membership before the end of the year. For Veterans of Foreign Wars who want to join, a DD 214 (military discharge papers) must be presented, and all new members, regardless of their veteran status, must be approved on an individual basis.
The longest-standing member currently is Ed Hudson, U.S. Navy Machinist Mate Second Class, who served in the Pacific, Taiwan Straits, Korea, and Vietnam. Hudson has been a member since 1964. He was proud to list the various efforts that impact the local community including fundraisers for the Animal Outreach of Cape May County and Red Cross blood drives. Hudson is especially proud of the thousands of dollars of scholarship funds they disburse every year. Such scholarships include “Patriot’s Pen” and “Voice of Democracy” where high school students submit essays on patriotism. “We must remind people what we are all about and that we’ve been there. We’ve always been there. We served our country. We serve our state. We serve our community.” When asked about his favorite memory, he stated, “The VFW means everything to me. There are so many memories, but one that stands out is when we hosted Thanksgiving dinners for Coast Guard cadets. They were so thankful. To this day, we still receive letters of gratitude from their families.” He also made a plea, “We are all passing on and we are trying to bring in new veterans to continue our tradition of service.”
Senior veterans have been most active in keeping the Cape May VFW going. He was not available for comment, but all those interviewed for this article made sure to mention Bob Strang, the current President and Manager of the Cape May Veterans Home Association, a support organization for the VFW. Bob Strang “should be commended” as someone whose energies and monumental efforts continue to benefit the community in recent years. “He works tirelessly to keep this place going strong.” According to Commander Prickett, “As President of the Cape May Veterans Home Association, Bob Strang and his team do a lot of work to ‘keep the lights on’ and the club open to members. He’s a good man.”
Home Association member Walter Micka, Jr. has a special connection to the “V.” His father, the late Walter Micka, Sr., is a local legend among its members. When Walt, Sr. retired to Cape May, the VFW was struggling with low membership and in desperate need of recovery. Walter Sr. is credited for bringing the VFW back to life at that time. “Our dad loved it there, and they loved him. He created a happy environment at the “V” that was not only for military veterans, but for locals.” Walter, Jr. explained that his father was a businessman who made deals with vendors, then passed those savings on to the membership and their guests. He is credited for starting the early-bird discount on membership dues, Sunday dinners, hoagie lunches, and excursions to Phillies games, just to name a few. “He helped make the Cape May VFW the best deal on the island for people to eat and drink.” Commander Prickett added, “Walt was our manager for many years. It was failing—that was, until he took over.”
Walter Sr. passed away in July of 2019. On the steps of Our Lady Star of the Sea Church, Walter Sr. was recognized with full military honors. The entire crowded mall, full of shoppers and tourists in high season, came to a respectful and solemn standstill.
Recently, in early February, Cape May VFW lost one of their longest standing members, Howard “Howie” Holland. “He did so much for the VFW as our Quartermaster. This is another big loss for us,” said Commander Prickett.
“The V” is open daily. The dance floor sees a lot of action on the weekends. Most Friday nights, members can enjoy live DJ entertainment, and they have recently hired local musicians to perform on select Saturday nights. On occasion, the VFW has fundraising events where the general public is welcome to attend. They require a special permit for such events, the most popular being the Annual Clam Bake, held late in September. It is one of their biggest events of the year and 100% of the proceeds goes toward youth scholarship programs. Monthly Sunday morning breakfasts are another offering at “the V.”
Meet me at the V: Two Veterans, Two Deployments, Two Generations
Jim enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1967. One year later, he found himself on his first major flight overseas. He departed from San Francisco and landed in Vietnam. “I wasn’t nervous when I went to Vietnam, not the first time, anyway. I was young. It was the second time I landed in Vietnam; I knew more. It felt a lot heavier going in that second time.” Upon discharge, Jim recalls that he didn’t leave his proverbial heart in San Francisco. He left his Army uniform. “As soon as I got off the airplane in San Francisco, I went into the men’s room and saw a mountain of Class A uniforms piled to the ceiling. I left mine there with the rest of them and changed right into my civilian clothes.” GIs of the Vietnam War did not receive the grateful comments from strangers we hear so often today. They rarely, if ever, heard “Thank you for your service.” Jim recalled, “It was best just to blend in back then.”
Mike wanted to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps and felt a calling to military service after 9/11. Although he was just a boy in 2001, he enlisted in the Marine Corps as soon as he was of age in 2009. His first deployment took him to Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). As a young lance corporal, he prepared casualty reports and was keenly aware of the cost of war. “Documenting death, whether it was from an IED or suicide, which wasn’t uncommon, was a full-time job.” Mike’s second deployment was to Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF). “During that deployment I had two young sons at home, and I was promoted to Corporal, with Marines reporting to me. I couldn’t be with my kids, and that was rough. My unit became my family. We bonded over there.”
Although they came from different backgrounds and were generations apart in age, much like the founders of the VFW in 1899, they were drawn together by similar experiences. They each had two deployments to foreign lands. They each had stories to tell, and stories they preferred not to talk about. Jim and Mike did meet at the “V.” They both went seeking comradery, and they found a place where many men and women have been drawn together by similar experiences, a place where many aim to support them, and a place where “everybody knows your name.” ν
For more information on membership call (609) 884-7961 or stop in at 429 Congress Street daily 10am–11pm.