Battle of the Bulge veterans' Latrobe parade appearance will be last
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When Leroy "Whitey" Schaller of Fairfield founded the Western Pennsylvania Chapter for veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in 1990, the group attracted nearly 100 members. For more than a decade, chapter members held regular quarterly meetings and taught a war history class at nearby Saint Vincent College.
Twenty-two years later, the Westmoreland County-based group's numbers have dwindled.
"There are probably about 20 of us left, but we usually only see six or seven active members," Mr. Schaller said. "We've lost a lot of people. We're getting old."
In recognition of their increasing age, these Battle of the Bulge veterans have decided to make today's Greater Latrobe Fourth of July parade their last. At 10:30 a.m., the chapter members will board a parade truck for their final ride -- and, perhaps, their final reunion as a group.
Mr. Schaller, who will turn 90 in November, was 22 at the start of the Battle of the Bulge, later remembered as the war's largest and bloodiest battle for Americans. The battle, fought from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945, was the last major Nazi offensive, a final attempt by Adolf Hitler to cut off supplies to the Allied forces.
The battle began with a two-hour German bombardment of the Allies and ended about a month later when the Germans realized they did not have enough fuel to sustain the fight. At its conclusion, the American forces had sustained nearly 90,000 casualties, of which 19,000 were killed, 47,500 wounded and the rest missing.
For Mr. Schaller and his fellow veterans, experiences of the battle that took place in Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany varied.
Chester Lapa of Greensburg, who at 86 is one of the chapter's youngest members, remembers sleeping outside during the battle, unable to dig foxholes because the ground had frozen over. The soldiers couldn't light any fires to keep warm, he said, because they didn't want to be spotted by the Germans. When he was evacuated from the battlefield Jan. 13, he was treated for frozen feet at a hospital in South Wales.
Joe Folino of Jeannette remembers arriving too late to supply soldiers with tank support after the Malmedy massacre -- a war crime during the battle in which German captors murdered 84 American prisoners of war. Mr. Schaller was a prisoner of war himself, held captive in Luxembourg from the end of the battle until his liberation April 2.
Honoring these sacrifices has always been the mission of The Greater Latrobe Parade, said its chairman, Tony Arbore.
"The veterans have always been No. 1," he said. "We are grateful to them, and we will miss them next year."
In Latrobe, Mr. Schaller and his chapter will join a growing number of World War II veterans nationwide who are riding in their last parades and hosting their final reunions. Seth Paridon, a researcher at The National WWII Museum in New Orleans, estimated that of the roughly 16 million who served, 1,500 to 1,600 die each day.
"That number goes up daily," he said. "They are fading away very, very quickly."
To preserve their voices, the WWII Museum -- alongside local nonprofits such as the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh -- interviews veterans to collect oral histories of the war and its key battles. No historical account of the war is complete, Mr. Paridon said, without the voices of those who fought in it.
The voices of WWII veterans are particularly important to preserve, he added. Theirs is a story, he said, of farm boys and civilian soldiers who went off to countries they had never heard of to fight a war many said they could not win. And when they returned, they rebuilt America, too.
"These are our fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers, regular guys who made history," Mr. Paridon said. "We are losing a national treasure every day."
For veterans, that same history can sometimes feel impossible to escape, said Orlando Pietropaoli of Greensburg. There are some things you never forget, he said -- the biting cold, the constant fear, the drone of bombers flying overhead.
Roughly 60 years after returning from the war, Mr. Pietropaoli said he still can't shake the nightmares. He even avoids war movies to fend off bad dreams.
But somehow, he said, meeting up with other veterans at the Latrobe Fourth of July parade never triggers unwanted memories.
"When you talk about the war with people who were in it, it doesn't quite bother you the way it might when other people talk about it," he said. "And the people who watch the parade are really nice, giving us a standing ovation as we go by."
What will he do next year, without the parade?
"I'll dream about it," he said.
First Published July 4, 2012 12:00 am