71st anniversary of SS McKeesport observed
McKeesporters say the World War II sinking of a merchant ship bearing the city's name will not be forgotten.
“We are going to continue with this event and try to expand on it,” Mayor Michael Cherepko said during Tuesday's observance of the 71st anniversary of the sinking of the SS McKeesport.
The ship set sail in 1919 and lived three lives — as a civilian cargo carrier, a Red Cross ship and then a part of the convoys keeping England supplied against the wrath of Nazi Germany.
The SS McKeesport was on its way back from Liverpool when it was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the North Atlantic on April 29, 1943.
“The loss of the ship and one of its crew, Seaman John Anderson of Baltimore, Md., was one of 900 merchant ships to be lost in the war, with almost 7,000 seamen having the sea as their burial ground,” said Gerard Driscoll, president of the Mon Valley Chapter of American Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II.
“(It was) one of the older merchant ships in the United States merchant fleet that was pressed into service as the war progressed,” Driscoll said. “Just coming to service at the time were the first of 2,700 ships in the Liberty Fleet, to be followed by 531 Victory Ships, bigger cargo ships with diesel engines, more speed and cargo capacity.”
“From 1940 to 1943, U-boats sank more ships than we could build,” said Kim Leve, U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle's new veterans liaison. “By the first half of 1943 the ratio of boats built to those sank was 5-1. By the end of the year it was 10-1.”
“Those ships helped win the war,” said Allegheny County Councilman Bob Macey, D-West Mifflin, who represented state Sen. James Brewster, D-McKeesport, at the event.
Brewster, state Rep. and event sponsor Marc J. Gergely, D-White Oak, and Doyle, D-Forest Hills, all sent aides because they were attending to legislative business in Harrisburg and Washington, respectively.
Leve recently was named by Doyle to replace retired aide Al Smith. She called the event and the ship a fitting tribute to the city.
Driscoll's remarks were a reminder of other things overlooked in remembrances of World War II.
“Liberty Ships were to be named for important Americans,” the Merchant Marine chapter president said. “Of the 2,731 Liberty Ships built, the naming committees could only find 17 famous African Americans.”
The first of those 17 was Booker T. Washington. Another was Robert L. Vann, publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, at the time the most widely read African American newspaper in the country.
Approximately 60 people attended the observance, moved for the most part from the Marina at McKees Point to the Palisades because of the weather.
“Welcome to a newly renovated Palisades Events Center,” Cherepko said.
Inside, there's fresh paint and fresh construction in the ballroom. Outside, a new digital marquee greets those coming off the Jerome Bridge into downtown McKeesport.
A wreath was laid alongside the SS McKeesport memorial at the entrance to the marina. Funeral director Sue Striffler Galaski presented the SS McKeesport flag raised above the memorial, along with Old Glory and a series of signal flags.
“Those signal flags spell out McKeesport,” said new event chairman Tom Maglicco.
Tuesday's event was a changing of the guard, as event originator Robert A. Sokol turned over his chairmanship to Maglicco, Gergely's chief of staff. Like Sokol, Maglicco is an Army veteran.
“I really enjoyed it,” Sokol said of 13 years at the helm. “Unfortunately, the older crowd has passed over and it is hard to get the younger crowd.”
“Bob did a wonderful job over all of these years,” said former Allegheny County commissioner Larry Dunn, a regular participant in McKeesport area veterans events. “It really symbolizes so much of what is important to us in the Mon Valley and Allegheny County and Western Pennsylvania.”
Absences were noted.
Clifford W. Flegal Sr. of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 514, a leading figure at veterans events, and event co-chairman Paul Baran, a Marine who served as a Naval Armed Guard on another merchant ship during World War II, were unable to attend because of illnesses.
Patrick Cloonan is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1967, or firstname.lastname@example.org.