Breakfast and gratitude were served Saturday morning in Duquesne University's student union ballroom as Michael Hayden, a retired Air Force general, profusely thanked 700 veterans and their families for their sacrifice and service.
"You communicated the inherent goodness of the American people to the rest of the world," said Mr. Hayden, a North Side native and Duquesne graduate whose career has stretched from the Air Force to the top roles at the National Security Agency and the CIA. After all the speeches and a video showing a rock band playing "The Star-Spangled Banner," it was the veterans' turn at the microphone. For an hour and a half, stories poured out of them, like water gushing from a canteen.
Among them was Al Crawford, one of seven children. He was 17 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and asked his father if he could join the U.S. Navy.
"He said, 'Yes. That's one less mouth to feed.' "
The very next day, Mr. Crawford, who lives in Coraopolis, signed up for a four-year hitch in the Navy. At the recruiting station, he said, "There were men lined up around the block. World War I vets got a pat on the back and sent home."
Warren Goss served with a unit that rehearsed the top-secret Normandy invasion, practicing maneuvers on the windy Slapton Sands at Slapton Beach in south Devon, England.
"We climbed cliffs. We would go out in ships and practice," the Sewickley resident said.
In late April of 1944, he saw the horrific aftermath of Operation Tiger when German E boats attacked U.S. ships in Lyme Bay, killing 638 servicemen.
"I saw all the bodies. We weren't even allowed to talk about it amongst ourselves," he said, his voice a whisper, his eyes wet with the memory.
Then, on June 19, 1944, "The worst storm in 100 years swept through the English Channel. We worked around the clock to get supplies up on the beach" as the Allies worked inland to support troops who had landed on D-Day, June 6.
Fran Rifugiato, a retired public school teacher and principal who lives in Monroeville, often says that as a young man, he went from practicing a Mozart clarinet concerto to learning how to hurt someone with a single body blow. He served in France with the 12th Armored Division.
On Saturday, as he showered, shaved and dressed, Mr. Rifugiato thought about his time in the military, when servicemen did not shower or shave for months. And when they did get a shower, it lasted for all of three minutes, he added.
"Can you imagine what we must have looked like to the French?" Mr. Rifugiato asked.
At age 16, "Bullet" Bob Daley of Mt. Lebanon had two older brothers serving in the military. One of them died in the Bataan death march. Determined to enlist in the U.S. Marine Corps because it was fighting hard in the Pacific, Mr. Daley altered his birth certificate and took it to a Marine recruiter, who saw right through the ruse. So, he went to St. Mary Magdalene's Church in Homestead to obtain a baptismal certificate. There, he told a nearly blind priest who resembled the Irish actor Barry Fitzgerald that he had lost his baptismal certificate and asked if the priest could fill out a new one.
"Why don't I just read it to you, Father?" Mr. Daley said, lying about his birth date.
"Fine idea, lad," the priest replied.
Mr. Daley spent his 17th birthday on the island of Saipan in the Pacific but worried throughout the war that someone would find out about his deception.
Hartley Baird of Bethel Park entered the military in 1943 even though his father, a World War I vet, had lost half of his left leg in the final days of that conflict. He admonished his son not to go to war. But Mr. Baird, who was working as a mail boy at Mesta Machine, was not exempt from the draft. He considered himself lucky to join a ground crew with the U.S. Army Air Corps.
"I worked in a steel mill. Mail boys don't get deferments," Mr. Baird said. "The real heroes of war are those who don't come back. We're lucky. We're handicapped by age."
Moderating the storytelling session was Todd DePastino of Mt. Lebanon, who co-founded the Veterans Breakfast Club, a public venue for veterans to gather and talk about their war experiences. Mr. DePastino teaches history at Waynesburg University and is the author of a book about World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin.
This year he joined others to start Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh, an oral history project that has interviewed 100 local veterans so far. The stories are catalogued on the group's website, www.veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com.
The Veterans Day Breakfast was co-sponsored two other local organizations: Friends of Danang, which raises funds for humanitarian projects in Danang, Vietnam; and Shepherd's Heart Veterans Home, which provides relief to local veterans in need.