Committee finalizes plans for SS McKeesport ceremony
McKeesport resident and Army veteran Robert A. Sokol has chaired the committee in charge of commemorating the sinking of the SS McKeesport for more than a decade.
This month marks the 71st anniversary of the Merchant Marine vessel being sunk by a German U-boat during World War II, and the last such event with Sokol at the helm.
He will be recognized as SS McKeesport committee chairman emeritus and McKeesport Area school director Tom Maglicco takes over as committee chairman on April 29 at 11 a.m. at the SS McKeesport Memorial at Marina at McKees Point.
“I'm tired,” Sokol said. “I'm giving it to a well-qualified individual that I know will do the job as good as I did. I have no qualms with Tom Maglicco, and the committee that's going to be with him. The committee is a strong committee. They're all McKeesport residents who push McKeesport and look out for the best. I looked around for awhile (for a replacement). He's young, energetic, and when I mentioned it to him, he jumped right on it.
“I'd like to see a nice turnout. It's going to break my heart to a degree to step down. I really enjoyed doing it. I've had a lot of fun. I've met a lot of nice people.”
Maglicco met with Sokol and other committee members last week at state Rep. Marc Gergely's White Oak office to plan this year's event.
“There's a lot of organizations and people that have to be contacted,” Maglicco said. “It's not going to be easy. It's going to be tough to fill his shoes. There's a lot of work that he's got involved here. His heartfelt dedication to keep this ship's name alive is pretty nice. It makes me feel proud that he did this for these veterans who worked these ships that kept the supply chain going and kept things moving in the war.”
SS McKeesport went down crossing the Atlantic Ocean on her way home from England on April 29, 1943, during the Battle of the Atlantic.
Sokol, an Army medic from 1962-65, began the tradition of remembering the ship following a conversation with McKeesport street captain Peter Salvo in 2001.
“He was very interested in Merchant Marine stuff,” Sokol said. “We were down at Dom's Shoe (Repair) shop and he says, ‘You know there was a ship named after the city of McKeesport?' I says, ‘Get outta here. No way.'”
The two looked at various photos of the ship and began talking about how to raise awareness of the military vessel. The first ceremony involved sending a wreath down the Youghiogheny River.
“It just blossomed,” Sokol said. “Every year it got bigger and bigger and bigger. I've had them all down there. Pittsburgh and McKeesport dignitaries forever, and I've always fed them, too, at the Palisades. Veterans like to eat. Every five years I would have a big shindig.”
“It is very interesting to me that we had a ship named after our town,” Maglicco said. “That was a very crucial part of the war getting shipping supplies and goods (to soldiers). I was a supply guy.”
Maglicco served in the Army Reserves from 1994-2004. He became a supply sergeant and was deployed to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said veterans should be proud of the tradition started by Sokol.
“It warms my heart to see all these people and organizations support the men and women of the Merchant Marines,” Maglicco said.
Those expected to participate this year include Port Vue American Legion Post 447, Liberty Borough Veterans Honor Guard, the McKeesport Area High School band, McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko, U.S. Navy Reserve Readiness Center, Cliff Flegal Sr. of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 514, American Merchant Marine Veterans Mon Valley Chapter president Gerard Driscoll, Amvets Post 8 Cmdr. Bob Jension, and a host of other state and local officials along with numerous members of area American Legions and VFW posts.
Refreshments and souvenirs will be available at McKeesport Palisades following the ceremony.
Michael DiVittorio is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1965, or firstname.lastname@example.org.