Veterans' memories: some colorful, others haunting and vivid
November 12, 2014 12:13 AM
From left, Marine veteran Bob Williams, Coast Guard veteran George Herwig, Merchant Marine veteran Gerard Driscoll, Army Air Corps veteran Hartley Baird and Navy veteran Ila Cole were the World War II veterans leading the Pledge of Allegiance at the 16th annual Veterans Breakfast at Duquesne University on Tuesday morning. The event was attended by 680 people.
By Molly Born / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
During World War II, the Navy got one of its “sloppiest paint jobs” by assigning a young sailor in a harness to color the ship’s mast. A B-17 pilot barely missed slamming into the side of a mountain in bad weather. And a grieving father ran into a man at the Pittsburgh VA who’d served with his son and promised to find his family if he didn’t make it home.
They’re the details that rarely make it into history books and, on Tuesday, were featured as part of the 16th annual Veterans Breakfast at Duquesne University’s student union ballroom hosted by the school and the Veterans Leadership Program of Western Pennsylvania.
After the meal, which drew more than 680 former members of armed forces and their families, several southwestern Pennsylvania World War II veterans stayed to relate their war experiences.
Remembering our Veterans
National Cemetery of the Alleghenies honors veterans during ceremony in Southpointe. (Video by Robin Rombach, 11/11/14)
“We always leave more stories than we have time to tell,” said Todd DePastino, the event’s moderator and co-founder of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a program to encourage veterans to share their stories with the public and each other. Most of the World War II vets are in their 90s.
Rege Wessell, the Fox Chapel sailor who painted the mast, said he initially planned to join the Marines when he met a sergeant at the Pittsburgh recruiting center who suggested otherwise.
“He said, ‘Go join the Boy Scouts.’ ”
“I said, ‘Well, you go to hell’ and I walked across the road and joined the Navy.”
Thomas Wiley, an Army Air Corps pilot in Italy, still doesn’t know how he survived the close call with a mountain.
The former Ohio State ROTC cadet, who now lives in Wexford, was flying without a navigator when he heard somebody yell “Pull up” over the plane’s intercom. He complied and barely cleared a mountain. The escape was so narrow, he found leaves on the plane’s ball turret.
Later, he asked who gave the direction that helped save his life.
“Nobody said they yelled, ‘Pull up.’ So when I get to the pearly gates … I’m going to say, ‘St. Pete, I got a question.’ And he’ll say, ‘Yeah, yeah, you want to know who yelled, ‘Pull up.’ ”
Coast Guard veteran Don Vitous of North Versailles told the audience of his own experiences and those of his brother, John, who died after his role in the invasion of Normandy.
“My brother sacrificed his life and he was very proud to be in the 4th Infantry Division,” he said.
Sometime after the war, their father recognized a former soldier with a uniform insignia that matched that of his late son while visiting a Veterans Administration office.
The man asked his son’s name and realized he had been with John Vitous when he died.
In fact, they had made a pact that if the other didn’t make it, the survivor would try to find his colleague’s family.
Mr. DePastino also read from a letter that John Vitous had written his father: “Even though they’re the enemy, and they’re trying to kill me, I cannot bring myself to hate them. They’re just like us, and I’m just like them.”
For others, the memories were vivid and haunting, even 70 years later.
Bob Williams of Canonsburg, a one-time drill instructor and member of the 4th Marine Division, spoke of rescuing the commanding officer of a tank crew who had been burned in a flash fire. As he took the man’s arm to move him to safety, “his skin just slid right off.”
“That was an experience I don’t want to go through again,” he said. The Reading native later injured his own arm in a grenade blast.
Veterans Jim Scheder of the South Hills, who was 16 when he quit school for the Merchant Marines, then went on to serve in the Army during the occupation of Germany and later, the Korean War; and Henry Parum of Forest Hills, who served with the 320th Anti-Aircraft Barrage Balloon Battalion — the only all-black unit to land on Omaha Beach on D-Day — also shared stories.
Jessica L. Wright, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness and a former adjutant general of Pennsylvania and commander of the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, was the event’s keynote speaker.
Molly Born: email@example.com or 412-263-1944.
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