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Speakers honor SS McKeesport over the years

| Wednesday, April 24, 2013, 12:01 a.m.
Cindy Shegan Keeley | Daily News
Catherine Baker Knoll, then-Lt. Gov. of Pennsylvania, spoke at the Palisades during the 2005 commemoration of the sinking of the SS McKeesport.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Col. William H. Graham of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District was the principal speaker for the 2011 SS McKeesport ceremony at the Palisades.

Each year for more than a decade McKeesporters have gathered to remember a 24-year-old namesake that died with honor in World War II.

“Ships don't get names because somebody wants to do somebody a favor,” former Allegheny County commissioner Larry Dunn said. “They get named for significant points in history and McKeesport was the center of the steel industry.”

Dunn is among those who have taken the podium during the annual observances at the Marina at McKees Point and Palisades of the 1943 sinking of the SS McKeesport.

“Today we are gathered to commemorate not so much the sinking of the SS McKeesport, but to honor the crew who served on board and also the generation of men and women who served our God and country during the trials of World War II,” the Rev. Paul Voida of St. Mary Romanian Catholic Church said in 2009.

“The city should be proud of this,” said Naval Armed Guard veteran Paul Baran of Duquesne, a co-chair of the annual event.

He served on the SS Argon, a part of a convoy led by the city's ill-fated namesake when German submarines encountered it on April 29, 1943.

Twenty-five Naval Armed Guardsmen accompanied 43 members of the Merchant Marines on the McKeesport. All but one of those on board survived its torpedoing.

“I have a lot of respect for the Merchant Marines,” Baran said in 2012. “People don't realize they could never fight a war without the Merchant Marines bringing over the materials for them.”

“It's the same mission that the Navy has been trying to allow our country to do — move materials,” Cmdr. Timothy E. Flecker of the Naval Operational Support Center in North Versailles Township said in 2009. “The SS McKeesport participated in that mission, and we're still doing it today.”

In 2011, the Merchant Marines were hailed by principal speaker Col. William H. Graham, chief Pittsburgh district engineer for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Graham, a veteran of both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, was invited to speak because of his agency's role in local life. The corps maintains locks and dams on area rivers, including those on the Monongahela at Braddock, Elizabeth and Charleroi. The SS McKeesport was built by a U.S. Steel subsidiary in New Jersey.

“At U.S. Steel, we are proud of the rich heritage steel has played and continues to play in the Mon Valley and in our country,” then-Mon Valley Works general manager Lisa Roudabush said at the 2008 observance.

“Days like today make us think about some of the things that happened before us,” Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said last year. “We certainly have a lot to be proud of in Western Pennsylvania and Allegheny County, and nowhere do we have more to be proud of than in McKeesport.”

“Throughout our nation's history, the city of McKeesport has been a mecca for the pioneering American spirit, having led our country in industry, innovation, transportation and community life,” Gov. Ed Rendell wrote in a proclamation for the 60th anniversary of the sinking.

Rendell's running mate, the late Lt. Gov. Catherine Baker Knoll, addressed the SS McKeesport event in 2005, one of a long line of keynoters for the annual ceremonies.

Many of the speakers have come from political realms but, as event chairman Bob Sokol said in 2011, “It is a veterans affair, and it will be treated as such. There will be no politics from the podium.”

SS McKeesport observances have been held thanks to a member of the “Greatest Generation” who fought World War II and has gone on to an eternal reward.

“Pete Salvo mentioned one day to Bob Sokol about a ship named the SS McKeesport being sunk during World War II,” said Clifford W. Flegal Sr., an officer of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 514 and a former city controller.

“Bob never heard of that before, so he said, ‘We should do something about it,'” Flegal recalled at the 2005 commemoration at the Palisades.

“I know what he's going through, because for the past 40 years I've been running Flag Day,” Flegal said. “Everybody says, ‘Hello, it's a good job,' but you do the job yourself.”

The 2012 event happened on April 28, rather than the actual anniversary because, as event chairman Bob Sokol put it, those who would attend on April 29 “will be in church instead.”

Another organizer was the late funeral director Frank S. Striffler, who passed away about a month before the 2006 gathering.

“All this was laid out here because of Frank Striffler,” Sokol said, referring to the monument and the “SS McKeesport” banner raised during the ceremony.

“Sue, you can be very proud of your dad,” Flegal told Striffler's daughter Sue Striffler Galaski, “because he was doing things for the whole community, not just McKeesport but the whole community.”

“He really was proud to be part of this,” said Galaski, a fourth-generation funeral director who remains part of the planning for the SS McKeesport commemoration.

The event remembers a heroic moment for a dying generation, but does so with a wide variety of participants of all ages, including the McKeesport Area High School band and veterans organizations still active in the McKeesport area.

Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or pcloonan@tribweb.com.

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