Veterans gather to remember Christmases past

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Three days after taking part in the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944, 82nd Airborne paratrooper Norman Waldman was captured.

But his guards at the prison camp in Dresden, Germany, were older soldiers driven more by patriotism to their country than hate.

"They were more than 70 years of age. They weren't able to go to the front, so they were more compassionate," Mr. Waldman said at the Christmas Memories Breakfast for veterans held last week at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Pittsburgh South in Bethel Park.

Mr. Waldman, 85, of Mt. Lebanon, recounted how on that Christmas Eve 65 years ago, he and other prisoners could spend the money the Germans paid them for their labor -- in accordance with the Geneva Convention -- on anything they liked.

The prisoners opted for a barrel of beer, so the guards took them to a brewery.

That night, they drank beer and shared it with the guards. Then they all sang Christmas carols: the guards and Mr. Waldman, who was also a German interpreter, sang in German; the other POWs sang in English.

"We had a nice time. We finished a barrel of beer, and the next day were back to work," he said.

Bill Hosking, 86, remembered a 4-inch piece of evergreen he carried aboard a ship that was headed to Italy and his service in the U.S. Army Ski Troops.

"It was my Christmas tree," the Mt. Lebanon man said.

The gathering of 144, mostly World War II veterans, and their wives, was hosted by the nonprofit Veterans Breakfast Club, a group dedicated to fellowship. Veterans were given a choice of sharing their human interest stories if they wanted to do so.

"The storytelling connects us all. That is what excites people: We're not trying to make a political point, but to enjoy one another," said founder Dan Cavanaugh, of South Fayette, who staged the first breakfast in March 2008.

Today, he holds the events with Todd DePastino, of Mt. Lebanon.

The group is for veterans of any era. Breakfasts are held in the south, north and east suburbs every four to five weeks and are open to the public.

Veterans, who sign up for a breakfast on a month-to-month basis, pay for their own meals. Mr. Cavanaugh, who is hoping to obtain legal nonprofit status for the organization, funds the administrative costs, such as postage.

While stories of any type -- sometimes simply of the era -- are solicited at the breakfasts, last week veterans were asked to share Christmas-related experiences.

Jim Gabelhart, 84, of Bridgeville, recalled that when he was a boy in McKeesport, his father worked part time at National Tube, so money was scarce.

For the musical at Central Presbyterian Church in the town, trees were cut in half and attached to the walls of the church. When they were discarded, Mr. Gabelhart, his father and his sister, Betty, spent three hours matching halves to make a whole tree for their home.

"It was the prettiest tree I ever saw," Mr. Gabelhart recalled.

About 10 years later, on Christmas Eve of 1943, he and fellow U.S. Air Force servicemen were walking into a United Service Organization, or USO, in Miami Beach when they heard the band playing "I'll Be Home for Christmas."

"You never heard so many 18-year-olds cry," he recalled.

Mr. Cavanaugh, 48, came up with the idea for the get-togethers after meeting with his father over a five-year period to record his World War II history.

The late William Cavanaugh was a member of the 3rd Army 65th Infantry Division, which landed in France after the Battle of the Bulge. He remained in Europe for a year.

"We had talked and recorded almost everything, at least I thought. But then, for some reason, on Easter Sunday 2002, a floodgate of memories poured out," Mr. Cavanaugh said.

"He told me that he was at the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria three days after liberation. He remembered the stacked bodies.

"I figured he couldn't be the only veteran with a story to tell, and I wanted to create a forum for them to reflect about their life and war experience," said Mr. Cavanaugh, who owns Cavanaugh's Wedding Planner and BrideShow with his wife, Donna.

Mr. DePastino, 43, became involved after giving a talk to a veterans breakfast last year about his biography of World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin titled, "Bill Mauldin: A Life Up Front."

"That book introduced me to what it was like to serve in a war zone. Before that research, I did not understand the terrors of front-line service. It gave me an appreciation of those who lived through it," said Mr. DePastino, who teaches history at Waynesburg University and Penn State Beaver.

"I instantly attached myself to the breakfasts and began helping out," he said.

Walter Patton, 85, of Glassport, who served in the Army Air Corps in the European theater, recalled having turkey and all the trimmings for Christmas dinner 1944 while stationed on an air base in the British Isles.

Christmas trees were less conventional.

"GIs were very resourceful. They would decorate with whatever they could find," Mr. Patton said.

Jack Brawdy, 89, of South Park, was a Navy petty officer on the brand new USS Champlin DD-601 destroyer. Its first assignment was escorting a large supply convoy to Casablanca in North Africa.

Christmas 1942 was spent in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We had a sumptuous meal of turkey, ham, potatoes, pumpkin pie and all the other trimmings supplied to us by the new commissary officer," Mr. Brawdy said.

"After dinner, the captain allowed cigarettes and cigars to be smoked."

The return trip was not so bountiful, as food supplies were very low.

"By the time we got back to New York, our bellies were empty. That is what made our first Christmas at sea so memorable," he said.

George Freas, 86, of Mt. Lebanon, was a Navy officer on a landing ship tank from 1943 to 1946 in the South Pacific.

Once a week, he wrote letters to his mother -- all of which she saved and which he now keeps in a binder at his home.

"I never thought I would be 10,000 miles from home this Christmas Eve," he wrote on Dec. 24, 1944, while anchored in Seeadler Harbor on Manus Island, near New Guinea.

On the back of the letter he wrote on Christmas Day, "Next year, I'll spend Christmas in Pittsburgh."

That was not the case. A year later, the landing ship, despite racing from Pearl Harbor to San Diego to reach the states for Christmas, fell short by one day.

Mr. Freas served as master of ceremonies of a Christmas party aboard ship. The men played games, read the Bible passage about the birth of Jesus and staged skits.

When the crew told him to close his eyes for his gift for setting up the party, he got a pie in the face.

"It turned out to be a very Merry Christmas after all," he recalled.

Mr. Cavanaugh and Mr. DePastino plan to record the stories for a video and write a nonfiction book about the era and the veterans' experiences.

"It's a really interesting group of people with a lot to share about life. What we enjoy is seeing people who are very successful in navigating this stage of life, which can be difficult but a stage of life when storytelling and sharing memories is almost encoded in our DNA. The rest of us are an eager audience to hear them,'' Mr. DePastino said.

For more, visit www.veteransbreakfastclub.com or call 412-206-0097, ext 22.


Freelance writer Margaret Smykla can be reached in care of suburbanliving@post-gazette.com .


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