3 Connellsville area veterans share stories from World War II

| Thursday, Dec. 5, 2013, 2:24 p.m.

If the Marine Corps recruitment offices had been open when Guy Tressler and his two friends traveled to Pittsburgh in 1942 to sign up to fight in World War II, his life may have taken an entirely different path. But as it was, the Navy office across the hall was open, and the rest is history for the highly decorated veteran who told his story as part of an oral living history.

Tressler, Virginia Eberharter and Florence Shutsy Reynolds — all World War II veterans and all from Connellsville — spent several hours at the Connellsville Canteen recently where their stories and histories were recorded and filmed for installments of “Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh,” a movement started in conjunction with the Soldiers and Sailors Hall and the Veterans Breakfast Club, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to give veterans a voice and an opportunity to tell their story.

The crew from the “Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh” has spent the past two years recording more than 200 stories of veterans from around the tri-state area.

“Every veteran has a story,” said Todd DePastino, Veterans Breakfast Club executive director. “We are not out to glorify war, and we really don't want the blood-and-guts stories. We want to hear the experiences of the veterans themselves. What it was like. We want to hear their firsthand stories.”

DePastino partnered with Kevin Farkas in 2011 to record the histories made available on a website for viewing.

“This is just one small way that we can say ‘thank you' to the veterans for their service,” Farkas said. “We want to give them the chance to tell their experiences.”

Farkas said they welcome all veterans from all eras to be a part of the project, but they are predominantly interested in World War II veterans.

“We are losing more and more of them every day,” he said. “Our goal is to get as many of them as we can. We have recorded 219, and we have about 100 on our waiting list.”

The pair usually films at the Soldiers and Sailors Hall in Pittsburgh, but on occasion, they venture out into the community if a proper location is suggested. Both believe the Connellsville Canteen was a perfect spot to film the histories of the veterans.

“This place is amazing,” DePastino said of the Canteen, which will open for a sneak peak on Saturday. “This is a perfect setting for what we do.”

Nancy Sova Hrabak arranged for the veterans to come to the Canteen for the filming. She believes the project is a wonderful tool to give veterans a voice.

“I met a veteran when I was at the VA Hospital who told his story, and his recall was amazing,” Hrabak said. She arranged for the veteran, Rudy Gulling of Beechview, to be recorded. “I just thought that it would be great if they could come here and do the same with some of our local veterans.”

“We are glad to be a part of this,” said Daniel Cocks, who's with the Canteen. “We thought that this was a wonderful idea when we heard about it, and since we have so much World War II memorabilia here, we thought it would be a nice place to film. We love having them here.”

All veterans who are part of the filming were asked to bring any memorabilia.

“Sometimes we only ask them a question or two. They just talk and tell their stories without any prompting from us,” Farkas said. “We have heard some incredible stories, and every day we learn more.”

DePastino, a historian, researches and tries to meet or speak with each veteran prior to filming.

“I think that it really puts them more at ease if they know what to expect and what we are looking for,” he said.

Each veteran talks for about an hour, depending on what they want and can relate.

“It's painful for some of these veterans,” Farkas said. “They are sometimes reliving painful memories.”

Reynolds, the only WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots) from Fayette County, told of her experiences with the select group.

“When I got to camp and saw a PT 17, it was love at first sight,” she said of the aircraft. “It's still an old love affair.”

Reynolds told of the inconveniencies the group endured as the only females — from the lack of uniforms to the harassment received from both civilians and enlisted men.

“We were constantly told, ‘Girls don't fly' and ‘Girls don't wear pants.' We had to prove that we could do it.”

Reynolds was the only WASP to date whom Farkas and DePastino have had the privilege of recording.

“Talk about an education,” DePastino said. “She was amazing.”

Tressler, who was part of an elite group called the Underwater Demolition Scouts and Raiders, predecessors of the Navy SEALs, told his story of serving in China at one of the 14 camps there.

“I want to tell my story because there are many, many groups that fought in World War II that no one ever even heard of, and I was part of one of them,” he said. “I want our story to be told so people know who we were and what we did.”

Eberharter told of how she rose to the rank of commander when she was a Navy nurse, serving in World War II, Korea and Vietnam.

“I loved being a nurse, and I loved the Navy,” Eberharter said. “I met people from all over the country. I made it my career, and I loved it.”

The three videos of the Connellsville veterans will be edited and put on the website in the upcoming months.

“This is of no cost to these veterans to be a part of this,” Farkas said, adding they could do more filming if they had more funding. “We are desperately in need of underwriting, and we hope that more people will take an interest in our project. These veterans need to tell their stories, and we need to hear them. We need to, and further generations need to know what went on, and time is running out.”

For information on veterans breakfasts or to see other videos, visit the websites at http://veteranvoicesofpittsburgh.com/ and http://veteransbreakfastclub.com/.

Marilyn Forbes is a contributing writer.

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