Pittsburgh vigil honors 83,343 reported as POW/MIA since start of WWII

The vigil continues Sunday through 2 p.m.


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The auditorium inside the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland has 2,300 seats. Worn blue canvas, often stained and often ripped, covers the off-white plastic backs.

More than 2,200 of those seats were empty Saturday as a vigil began for prisoners of war and those missing in action, part of a national day of remembrance for the 83,343 people the Defense Department lists in those categories since the start of World War II.

It was an easy metaphor. Those who could not be there filled the room.

"Every veteran should come to this," said Steve Gondos, 67, of Monongahela. "It's that important."

Mr. Gondos served one tour of duty in Vietnam, from November 1966 to November 1967. He was a Marine. Wearing a Marine Corps sweatshirt and a Marine Corps hat, he said events like this one made him think of the people he served with. Not many went missing, he said, although time or the war itself meant most of them are lost to him.

"It's a time to remind ourselves and the whole country what kind of sacrifice some people make," he said.

Originally, the vigil was going to begin outside. Steady rain meant the series of people who would hold the American flag in shifts from noon today until 2 p.m. Sunday began on the auditorium's 78-foot-wide stage under the massive words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

Mr. Gondos said the weather shouldn't have changed organizers' plans.

"It rained in Vietnam and we didn't run inside," he said.

After the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, an honor guard left behind one of its own on the stage as the vigil began.

Sol Gross, 91, was born in McKeesport. He joined the U.S. Army's 84th Infantry in December 1942 and landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy in October 1944.

His unit moved to the front and on Nov. 29, 1944, found itself in battle in Lindern, Germany.

"We went through the lines and we were dropping like flies," Mr. Gross said. "We couldn't see them but they could see us."

There was no air support. No artillery support. He was taken prisoner, loaded into a railroad boxcar and sent to camps in Hanover, then Brandenburg.

One loaf of bread had to feed 20 people, he said. Sometimes they might get a potato or a rutabaga.

"We didn't undress from November until I was liberated," he said.

That happened the following June.

"When I took off my shoes, I didn't have any skin on my feet," he said. "Dropped right off."

Outside the Soldiers & Sailors auditorium and around the corner is a small exhibit on prisoners of war. Motion-activated lights shine when someone walks by.

Behind the glass: an illustration of the Andersonville prison camp from the Civil War, an aluminum sculpture -- a dancer guiding a single-propeller plane -- an Italian prisoner made in 1944 from the scrap of a German fighter plane and traded to an American soldier for a pack of cigarettes, a rusty M-60 machine gun found in Vietnam's Shau Valley in 1996 after being left behind from a firefight in 1970.

It is plain more than it is reverential, blending in with the other exhibits that line the walls.

It also contains bone carvings -- long-cooking soups softened bones which prisoners with ample time carved into Bibles or rings or small sculptures with their penknives. Intricacy and even beauty from the mundane.

Jeffrey DeVore, 38, was only ever a prisoner of war for pretend. He knew it was pretend, long hours of carefully crafted hell at the U.S. Air Force Academy as part of a POW training exercise.

"I will never forget those three days for the rest of my life," he said.

An attorney and a lieutenant colonel in Pennsylvania Air National Guard, trained to fly a KC-135, his voice broke as he remembered what happened to him.

First he was kidnapped off a bus, a bag over his head. There was no light in the 2-foot by 2-foot cell he ended up in, just a speaker playing the same Barney the purple dinosaur song over and over again.

Lt. Col. DeVore sang it on the auditorium's stage: "I love you, you love me, I love you, you love me."

He refused to read a propaganda statement on camera, he said. He figured that was the right thing to do.

His fake captors then took another man, sealed his mouth with Saran Wrap and poured water over his face.

"I didn't even know what waterboarding was at that point but I knew I was scared," Lt. Col. DeVore said.

But training is not war. Not everyone gets to go straight home.

It took 68 years for Army Air Forces 2nd Lt. Regis E. Dietz.

He was 28 in October 1943 when a B-24D Liberator carrying him and 11 others crashed in New Guinea on a reconnaissance mission. In June 1949, the Army Graves Registration Service could not find their remains and classified them unrecoverable.

A team in March 2007 found identification tags and human remains near their last reported position. The Defense Department announced in July 2011 that DNA matches confirmed their identities, Lt. Dietz among them.

Ron Hestdalen, director of the National Cemetery of the Alleghenies in Cecil, said this weekend's vigil was part of what made it possible to find Lt. Dietz's remains in the first place.

Remembering inspires searching, he said. And thousands are waiting to be found.

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Jacob Quinn Sanders: jsanders@post-gazette.com First Published September 21, 2013 10:15 PM


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