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World War II memories shared by Connellsville area veterans

| Sunday, July 7, 2013, 4:03 p.m.
Karl Polacek | Daily Courier
Robert McKnight of Bullskin displays one of his photos of the damage to the heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh during a typhoon in June 1945.
Karl Polacek | Daily Courier
Martin Griglak of Dunbar Township recounts his World War II service.

World War II ended long ago.

But local veterans still have strong memories of the war.

Martin Griglak, 86, of Dunbar Township joined the Navy. But after boot camp, he and 600 of his fellow sailors wound up fighting with the U.S. Marines on Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Robert McKnight, 87, of Bullskin was on the heavy cruiser USS Pittsburgh in the Pacific when the ship's bow was ripped off during a typhoon.

McKnight and Griglak joined fellow World War II veterans Tom Dix, 88, of Jones Mills and Robert Rose, 91, of Tarrs during a book club event at the Carnegie Free Library in Connellsville on Saturday.

Griglak showed a photo of a young, muscular man. He said he wanted to play football. He was also a champion swimmer during his high school years. During the war, he ended up in the Pacific.

Griglak found fighting the Japanese on Iwo Jima and Okinawa somewhat shocking. He said the Japanese never wanted to surrender because they felt their duty was to die for their emperor.

“I don't know if you want to hear this stuff,” he said. “It's pretty gory.”

One time on Saipan, a group of three Japanese came in under a white flag. As they got close, Griglak said the officer in the center dropped to the ground. He had a machine gun strapped to his back. The other two Japanese used that machine gun to shoot up a number of men in his unit.

Another time, his unit was at an air field as a B-29 bomber was taking off. A Japanese kamikaze swooped down in an attempt to crash into the bomber. The Marines in Griglak's unit shot it down. He has a photo of the dead pilot by the plane with two members of the bomber crew taken by one of the civilian photographers who were at flag raisings on Iwo Jima.

After the war, Griglak worked in the foreign service, spending time in diverse areas of the world and working with representatives of foreign governments.

McKnight recalled the day in early June 1945 when the typhoon ripped apart the cruiser. Waves reached 100 feet during the storm.

“When the storm hit, they got everyone below deck and back to the middle of the ship,” McKnight said.

The ship came to be known as the longest ship in the world when the bow was towed to Guam while later returning to Pearl Harbor and then to Bremerton, Wash., to have a new bow installed. The old bow, left at Guam, was known as “USS McKeesport, a suburb of Pittsburgh.” It was scrapped there.

He said the first reunion for his shipmates from World War II was in 1978 in Chattanooga, Tenn. He said he did not remember some of his shipmates when he saw their faces, but the memory of who they were came back when they started to speak.

Dix, a U.S. Navy veteran, served on a destroyer escort and a mine sweeper in the Pacific during the war.

Oddly enough, the most casualties suffered on any ship he was on happened following the end of World War II. The mine sweeper he was on struck a mine while clearing mines in the East China Sea between Japan and Korea. He said 31 members of the crew were lost.

Dix said after the war, he had little contact with his shipmates. He was separated from the Navy in 1946.

“No one got together until 1980,” he said.Rose spent his war in Europe as a radio operator and a gunner aboard a B-17 bomber. He was awarded a Bronze Star for his service during a mission, when his plane flew low over Holland to drop food supplies for civilians.

“The Germans had taken all of their food,” Rose said.

Shirley Rosenberger, organizer of the event at the Carnegie Free Library, who is the daughter of a Navy veteran who served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet late in the war, said she hoped more young people would become interested in hearing of the experiences of the veterans before they were all gone.

She found the service of World War II veterans amazing.

“What the veterans have done for our country, throughout the history of our country, is something you should be proud of because the average citizens would never be able to do or go through what you went through,” Rosenberger said to the veterans.

Karl Polacek is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at kpolacek@tribweb.com or 724-626-3538.

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