Share This Page

Pittsburgh sisters join in annual raising of flag for brother who died in Vietnam

| Thursday, July 3, 2014, 10:24 p.m.
James Knox | Tribune-Review
Sisters Darlene Carmack, 59, of Wexford (left) and Carol Matessa, 68, of Ross at the grave of their brother Peter O’Toole at Christ Our Redeemer Cemetery in West View Wednesday July 2, 2014. The Sarah Heinz House Camp will raise the flag that rested on O’toole’s coffin this the 45th 4th of July after his death. A former Sarah Heinz camper, he was killed in action in Vietnam.
Peter Joseph O'Toole Corporal D CO, 2ND BN, 506TH INF RGT, 101 ABN DIV Army of the United States 25 April 1949 - 19 September 1968 Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania Panel 43W Line 040
James Knox | Tribune-Review
His bronze star and purple heart medals rest on the grave of Peter O’Toole at Christ Our Redeemer Cemetery in West View Wednesday July 2, 2014. The Sarah Heinz House Camp will raise the flag that rested on O’toole’s coffin this the 45th 4th of July after his death. A former Sarah Heinz camper, he was killed in action in Vietnam.

As a youth, Peter J. O'Toole took part in most activities that the Sarah Heinz House offered.

He played basketball and hockey, danced, took part in the Christmas play, went camping.

Friday marks the 45th straight Fourth of July that the flag that draped his casket after his death in Vietnam will be raised at the campground near Ellwood City where he loved to stay. His family will attend the flag-raising ceremony for the first time.

“It's very commendable that they remember a member of the Heinz House who was willing to go give up his life for his country,” said his sister, Carol Matessa, 68, of Ross. She and at least one other sister, Darlene Carmack, 59, of Wexford will attend the event.

The Sarah Heinz House has provided activities for boys and girls in the North Side for a century, and the campground near McConnells Mill State Park is much the same as it was in O'Toole's time. Oak, maple and pine trees shade the 111 acres. Kids sleep in platform tents and hear the sounds of chirping birds and rain pattering on canvas.

The Sarah Heinz House was practically the center of life for O'Toole and his sisters. Their father died in 1963, and their mother Agnes, a waitress at Eat'n Park, raised them on Howard Street in the North Side.

Heinz House records show that O'Toole distinguished himself for attendance. He won a loyalty pin. He played chess and was one of the seven highest-ranked members of his group on three occasions, and one of 25 outstanding boys by the Alumni Association.

His senior picture from North Catholic High School shows dark, wavy hair, a gleam in his eyes and a smile. Though small in stature, he was not one to back down.

“He was always the person you wanted on your team at the Sarah Heinz House because he would never quit, as opposed to some of the guys with more ability who would take time off between plays,” said his friend, William Novakovic, 70, of Oakmont, who was involved with the activity center for 12 years.

After graduating from high school, O'Toole — sometimes called by his middle name, Joe — joined the Army. He became a paratrooper in the 101st Airborne Division. He went to Vietnam on July 28, 1968. He soon was wounded but recovered.

He was killed on Sept. 19, 1968, when a mine exploded under the truck that was returning him to his unit. He was 19.

After the funeral, the camp director received permission from O'Toole's mother to keep his flag, but his sisters did not know how it was used until recently. It is encased in glass on a bookshelf in the Heinz House until each July Fourth flag-raising. The sisters plan to contribute to a personalized memorial for his flag.

Bob Bechtold observed the ceremony as a child, then as camp director and now as director of outreach and recruitment. At the flag-raising, he said, the staff tells the story of how O'Toole lived and died, how he took advantage of opportunities and how current members could do the same.

“You're in a special place,” Bechtold said campers are told. “You never know what can happen. If you get the opportunity again, just seize the moment.”

O'Toole is buried in a military plot on a grassy hillside in Christ Our Redeemer Cemetery in Ross. An embedded stone marker gives a brief history of his military service.

On a brilliant summer day, hundreds of American flags, one for each grave, flapped silently in the breeze.

“The best people always end up dying because it's the worst people that provide these kinds of conflicts,” said Novakovic, himself a veteran.

Bill Zlatos is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.