Long-overdue memorial to region's World War II vets opens
When the tarps came down, John Vento walked among the spires of the World War II memorial on the North Shore and paused at a black and white photo.
Two young men in fatigues, sitting in a trench behind a 40-millimeter gun, stared back at him. The man on the right was Vento, nearly 70 years younger.
“We were protecting an air strip in New Guinea,” Vento said. “I think of those days in the jungle and fighting for my country. That was a long time ago.”
That photo and dozens of others are a permanent part of the Southwestern Pennsylvania World War II Memorial. Officials dedicated the monument, 13 years in the making, during a ceremony under cold, gray skies on Friday.
“This memorial is dedicated to (veterans) but it's not for them,” said Bob Luffy, president of the memorial committee. “It's for the generations to come … so they know the sacrifices made for them.”
The memorial's spires face each other in semi-circles. Panels covered with photos and text celebrate Western Pennsylvanians' wartime efforts, at home and abroad. Designer Larry Kirkland said he chose steel and glass for the memorial because they are materials most identifiable with Pittsburgh.
The monument differs from others, officials said, in that it chronicles the events of a nation at war and the personal stories of those who lived it.
“It's like a big history book,” said Army veteran Code Gomberg, a member of the memorial committee. “You look at these photos and there are a million stories.”
Consider the otherwise unremarkable photo of a young man in uniform that went largely unnoticed on Friday. As visitors milled past, a woman approached the image, reached out her hand and smiled.
“That was my husband,” said Nancy Travis Bolden. “Frank Bolden. A war correspondent.”
Bolden, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Courier, became one of two black journalists given access to U.S. troops. His reporting on the heroics of black troops helped dispel myths that they were substandard, even cowardly soldiers and led to eventual integration of the armed services.
Bolden died in 2003 but will be forever remembered through the monument.
“I am so grateful,” Travis Bolden said. “What he did is being preserved.”
Gomberg is featured, but not in images. His story of a chance encounter in Germany with a starving boy named Mike is etched into a panel.
It was late April in 1945, Gomberg recalled. He had walked through the remains of a liberated concentration camp, where an MP explained the reason for the large furnaces. Gomberg became ill and left. Outside, he encountered a 12-year-old boy, begging for food. His parents had been taken to Auschwitz. He had nobody.
Gomberg's unit took in the boy, caring for him: “He became our orderly and interpreter. He asked me what would happen to him. Sometimes he became depressed.”
When Gomberg received orders to return home, he brought Mike to the Jewish Welfare Board in Paris. The boy said he would try to get to Indiana, where he had family.
“And that's the last I saw of the kid,” Gomberg said. “I've searched for him, but I can't find him. I never knew his last name — just Mike, and an old photo of him. As far as I know, he's either still in Europe or he got to Indiana.”
Mike would be in his late 70s. Gomberg wonders what stories he could tell.
Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or email@example.com.