McKeesport celebrates its namesake on 70th anniversary of ship's sinking
A crowd driven inside by a steady rain at the Marina at McKees Point shared the history of the SS McKeesport on the 70th anniversary of its sinking by a German U-Boat.
“Tell one person under the age of 18 the story of the SS McKeesport,” Port Vue Mayor Brien Hranics urged at Monday's Palisades ceremony.
“There are so many Americans who do not remember World War I, World War II, Korea or Vietnam,” Clifford W. Flegal Sr. of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 514 said.
The story is more than that of a freighter sunk en route home from England on April 29, 1943, during the World War II Battle of the Atlantic.
Austin Davis of McKeesport, an aide to Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, recalled how the Red Cross used the ship in 1940 to deliver $1 million in emergency supplies to Marseilles, France.
Some say that was the finest moment for a ship built for the U.S. Merchant Marines in 1919 by U.S. Steel's Federal Shipbuilding Co. subsidiary in New Jersey. It was part of an order of 30 ships built for the U.S. government.
On Fitzgerald's behalf, Davis delivered one of several proclamations marking the event. Others came from state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport; county Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin; and the city's two state House members.
Rep. Bill Kortz, D-Dravosburg, was joined by Tom Maglicco, chief of staff to Rep. Marc Gergely, D-White Oak, a sponsor of the annual event but unable to attend. Brewster also was represented by an aide.
Others unable to attend included a scheduled speaker, Dr. Harry Lanauze, a lieutenant in the Tuskegee Airmen; and Naval Armed Guard Paul Baran, honorary chairman of the annual event who served on another vessel on the day the McKeesport was sunk.
The SS McKeesport had served more than 5 million war victims in France and the Low Countries of Western Europe when it was pressed into the effort to aid Britain.
It had 43 Merchant Mariners and 25 Naval Armed Guards on board when it was torpedoed. All but one survived the icy North Atlantic waters.
Their ship had a 55-foot beam and 27-foot draft and turbine engines capable of carrying 9,600 tons at a rate of 12 knots per hour.
“It is such an honor to recognize the Merchant Marine,” said former Allegheny County Commissioner Larry Dunn, a regular at veterans events.
As a surprise, event organizer Bob Sokol received a larger version of the ship's replica on display at the McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center.
Jim Fedasz of McKeesport expanded upon the model he had built some years ago.
John Barna, president of the heritage center board of directors, accepted a $100 donation from McKeesport Huntington Bank branch manager Jennifer Teeter.
Robert McKnight of Connellsville, who served on the USS Pittsburgh, presented a picture of that ship at the SS McKeesport gathering.
During a typhoon in June 1945 off Japan's Ryuku Islands, the bow of the Pittsburgh was sheared off. Crew members nicknamed it “The Mighty McKeesport.”
The crowd filling the Palisades heartened Mayor Michael Cherepko, who was one of several speakers to thank veterans for their service in World War II and later conflicts.
Sokol was recognized for his efforts to keep the memory of the SS McKeesport alive.
“Thank you, Bob, for all that you do,” Kortz said.
Sokol honored some of the participants, including The Daily News General Manager Robert Hammond. The News and Trib Total Media helped sponsor this year's event.
Monday's event opened with a posting of colors by a guard from the Navy Operational Support Center Pittsburgh in North Versailles Township.
Mary Ann Huk joined the McKeesport Area High School band in performing the National Anthem; Lou Gallo of Knights of Columbus Council 955 led the Pledge of Allegiance; and Boniface Igba, a lay minister who serves as spiritual coordinator at Auberle, gave the invocation.
Igba hailed what he termed “in different ways in every generation ... the battle to do what is right.”
Comments also were made by Nick Johnson, an Army veteran of Vietnam, and World War II D-Day paratrooper Michael J. Melosky, who was captured twice and escaped twice from the Germans.
American Merchant Marine Veterans Mon Valley Chap ter president Gerard Driscoll placed a memorial wreath, and post commanders John Farrell of East McKeesport VFW Post 8430 and Bob Jensen of Amvets Post 8 raised an American flag brought by Al Smith, veterans affairs aide to U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Forest Hills.
Another event organizer, funeral director Sue Striffler Galaski, presented a special SS McKeesport flag.
Port Vue American Legion Post 447 and Liberty Borough Veterans provided a firing squad.
McKeesport Area band members Hanna Smart and Theresa Kulasa played taps and band member Chris Sisley provided a drum roll during the flag raising.
Retired city councilwoman Laura Jenkins offered a benediction.
American Legion posts 380, 443, 666, 361, 447, 939 and 701, VFW posts 947, 803 and 188, Disabled American Veterans Post 52, Jewish War Veterans and the Military Order of the Purple Heart were represented at the event.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.
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