Western Pennsylvania veterans recount their days of service on special day

West View elementary school students watch the Veteran's Day parade, Downtown.
West View elementary school students watch the Veteran's Day parade, Downtown.
Photo by Jasmine Goldband | Tribune-Review
Chris Togneri
| Monday, Nov. 11, 2013, 11:33 p.m.

The stories fade, making it more important to listen.

“They want to tell them; we need to hear them,” said Todd DePastino, executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, a nonprofit that encourages military veterans to share memories of war. “They've had extraordinary experiences, and they need to be shared.”

A breakfast on Monday at Duquesne University drew 700 people before Pittsburgh's Veterans Day parade, where many who marched said they felt honored by the crowd lining Liberty Avenue, Downtown.

“A lot of ‘thank yous,' ” said Bill Dawkin, 66, of Ingram, a Vietnam veteran who marched as commander of the McKees Rocks Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Participation in the 94-year-old parade remains steady — 77 bands and organizations, said Tony Filardi, adjunct treasurer in the Federation of War Veterans Societies of Allegheny County, the parade organizer.

But Filardi expects organizers to discuss moving the event to a Saturday to attract more spectators and veterans. Many young veterans had to work, he said.

At the breakfast, stories filled the room — some decades old, a few humorous but most of them graphic and tragic — among invited speakers on stage and in private conversations at tables.

Army Air Corps veteran Walter Patton, 89, of Glassport recalled his time in France during World War II, where children and their mothers would beg soldiers for the remains of their bars of soap.

“They couldn't get any during the war,” he said. “We'd give them our bars, and they'd be so happy.”

As the occupation continued, he said, soldiers couldn't find a drop of Cognac, a variety of brandy made famous by the French. But the day the Germans surrendered, “the Cognac emerged and flowed like water,” he said, smiling. “They'd been hiding it underground. Most people were inebriated for days. It was one of the biggest celebrations I've ever seen.”

Army veteran Henry Parham, 91, of Wilkinsburg said he was part of the only all-black unit to participate in the Invasion of Normandy.

“It's hard to try and bring it back after all these years,” he said. “When you're walking among 15,000 dead people to get to where you're supposed to be … it's not too pleasant.”

Yet, it's important to talk about, said Rocky Bleier, an Army veteran of the Vietnam War and a Pittsburgh Steelers icon.

Most of Bleier's playing career followed his war service, and reporters seized on his story, Bleier said.

“I was a story, so I had to talk about it,” he said. “It helped. When you repress those feelings, they just churn around down there. … It's really important now because the World War II guys, we're losing them. We need to hear them, listen to what they did, where they went, what they saw.”

Many veterans find it difficult to open up.

Albert DeFazio, 88, of Penn Hills participated in the Battle of Monte Cassino in Italy in January 1944. He recalled the details with tears in his eyes: How he and other soldiers twice advanced on the mountain and twice were fought back. How his buddy, standing at his side, was killed by a large shell explosion that left DeFazio with bloody holes in his back. How he grabbed his wounded lieutenant, dragged him to a pontoon boat and sought medical help.

“Oh my God, what I seen over there,” DeFazio said, shaking his head. “It was all hell broke loose. Bodies were piled four, five high in seconds. I couldn't stand it anymore.”

He never spoke of it. Then one day, more than 40 years ago, his daughter saw him cleaning out a drawer in his bedroom. From the doorway, she watched as he held up a shiny medal: his Purple Heart.

“I was 14, and until that day, I never even knew he fought in a war,” said his daughter, Valerie Vacula, 56, of Penn Hills. “He never talked about it. I asked him if he ever killed anybody. He said, ‘I don't know. I hope not.'”

DeFazio, an Army veteran, said he never talked about his wartime experiences because “it didn't bother me.”

His daughter doesn't believe him.

“He lost a very good friend,” she said. “He saw a lot of terrible things.”

His silence, she said, is understandable.

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or ctogneri@tribweb.com. Staff writer Aaron Aupperlee contributed.

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