Henry Raad was celebrating the Feast of St. George with his family when a Western Union messenger knocked on the door of their Mill Street home in Paterson. In 1944, it was a knock no one wanted to hear.
“He threw a telegram on the table and ran out of the house like lightning. He knew it was going to be a notice,” Raad, 92, of Wayne, said during an interview last week. “It said ‘John Raad. Killed in action.’ ”
The room fell silent, Henry Raad remembered. John, his older brother, had been killed in the Battle of Anzio in Italy on March 22. The 20-year-old infantryman was the first from a tight-knit Syrian community in Paterson to die in World War II, but he was not the last. At least seven more young Syrian-American men from the city would lose their lives.
Copy photo of John G. Raad, who was killed in Italy 1944 in WWII and who was the first from Paterson’s Syrian community to be killed in service.
All three Raad brothers served in foreign wars: John, a private first class and infantryman in the Army; George, a Navy seaman first class who served in the South Pacific during the war; and Henry, a private first class in the Army deployed during the Korean War.
No American community or ethnic group was untouched by World War II, which claimed 405,399 U.S. lives. Syrians, who came to New Jersey in large numbers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, also saw their lives upended, and the John Raad American Legion Post 438 in Paterson was a testament to that.
A group of veterans who had been meeting at the Syrian-American Democratic Club in Paterson founded the post in 1947. They wanted to support veterans and pay tribute to men from Syrian families who lost their lives, including Michael Kashey, Edgar Couri, Joseph Attara, Joseph Tabback, Samuel Facas, Joseph Dahrea, Joseph Siouffi and John Raad.
“They wanted to show the town that we took a part in the war, that the Syrian-American boys took part in World War II,” Henry Raad said.
A Syrian community grows
Gafrin Raad and Sarah Fattell came to the U.S. around 1910 and met and married in New Jersey. Like their fellow Syrian immigrants, they worked in the textile businesses that lined the Passaic River. The families were mostly from Aleppo in northern Syria and were Christian.
Three churches sprouted up to serve hundreds of families in Arabic and English: Sacred Heart Armenian Catholic Church, St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church and St. Ann Melkite Catholic Church, where the Raad family prayed. The brothers are still members of St. Ann’s, now in Woodland Park.
The community also had a social club on Main and Grand streets where people played backgammon. They shopped at Syrian-owned grocery stores that lined local streets.
Growing up, the Raad brothers liked to go to movies and dances at the local armory. They enjoyed parties at relatives’ homes, Arabic music and home-cooked Syrian meals, recalled George Raad, 94, of Wayne.
John Raad, a graduate of Central High School with movie-star looks, worked as a linotype operator for two Paterson printers. He was also part of the editorial staff of a Catholic Youth Organization publication, according to news clips about his death.
Drafted in 1943, John told George, who would soon reach draft age, that his experience in the Army was awful and encouraged him to enlist in the Navy instead.
At 18, George Raad entered the Navy and was assigned to the LST-127, a flat-bottomed ship that docked on shores in the South Pacific to deliver troops and equipment. Henry was drafted into the Army and served in Korea but was discharged early to care for their parents.
In his last letter home, sent just days before his death, John Raad included $5 for an Easter orchid for his mother, according to The Morning Call newspaper, a precursor to today’s Herald News.
The raid that took out his infantry unit on March 22, 1944, was something of a scandal, according to his brothers, who said Germans stationed up the hill were able to easily attack the troops while they were asleep.
“When the Germans attacked, these guys never knew what the hell hit them. The whole unit was wiped out,” said George Raad.
John Raad is buried in a military cemetery in Nettuno, Italy. The brothers did not want his remains shipped home after the war, worrying that it would be too hard on their mother, who fell into months of hibernation and mourning after her first-born’s death.
Back home in Paterson, Henry and George joined their uncle’s company, the Perfect Textile Mill on Van Houten Street in Paterson, which manufactured silk.
They also formed a musical group, known as the Raad Brothers, performing Arabic music with George singing and playing the oud, a stringed instrument resembling a lute. Henry played violin, while a friend, George Cousa, played the tabla, a drum played by hand.
At the time, they were known as the only Arabic-music band in New Jersey whose members were born in the United States, according to the brothers, who now live in Siena Village at Wayne, a senior housing complex. For three decades, they played weddings and social events.
George married and has five sons. His wife died in her 40s of cancer. Henry, married for 51 years, has a son with wife Beverly.
At first, Gafrin and Sarah Raad didn’t want the Legion post named for their son. They were uncomfortable with the spotlight but soon became active members, George Raad recalled.
The John Raad American Legion Post 438 sent care packages to young men serving overseas and helped veterans obtain benefits under the G.I. Bill of Rights. Members attended funerals, marched on Memorial Day, sponsored an annual Mass on the holiday and hosted social events. A ladies’ auxiliary unit distributed food baskets to needy families and raised funds for charitable causes.
The post had a few homes before moving into a new building on Montclair Avenue and Dakota Street in Paterson in 1960. But the number of veterans dwindled and the post eventually closed.
The wave of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants into the area stopped around 1924 due to changes in U.S. immigration policy, before resuming in the late ’60s. The city’s demographic makeup has changed, but there is still a large presence of Arab Americans, including Syrians, Jordanians and Palestinians. The more recent immigrants are largely Muslim.
Andre Sayegh, the mayor of Paterson, was born in the U.S. of Syrian and Lebanese heritage. Today, Arab-owned stores and restaurants still line Main Street in South Paterson, serving new immigrants and families from across the region whose grandparents arrived long ago but who still enjoy tastes and sounds they grew up with.
The building on Montclair Street that housed the post is now a preschool, and the street was renamed John Raad Post Way. Sayegh, who used to attend Christmas parties at the site as a child, had the name changed and a street sign erected in 2012.
“I’m half Syrian,” he said, “so it’s an honor to know someone from the community served our country and that people saw fit to rename a post after him.”