Blairsville monument planned for local residents lost in wartime action
The number of combat veterans who died fighting in wars for America's freedom is a staggering 1,346,000.
For most of us, that is a statistic. For the families of those casualties, it is a heartache that never completely heals.
The Blairsville area certainly wasn't exempt from the sacrifice. Vietnam veteran Bill Orr is currently compiling a list of those who died in battle or went missing in action and were from Blairsville, Black Lick, Torrance, Brenizer, Strangford and other areas with a Blairsville mailing address. So far, he has 75 names.
Orr, who lives just outside Blairsville, noted recently that the town once had a military honor roll board but it was removed in the course of a construction project and never replaced. He wants to build a new monument in the community to honor its wartime dead and missing.
“The first step is to make sure that everyone who should be on the list is on it and that no one is on it who shouldn't be,” he said.
He has been researching records in Indiana and Westmoreland counties but is also asking for information from local families.
The location for the new monument has not yet been determined, but Orr is hoping to have it built in the summer of 2014. The construction will be paid for entirely with donations.
“Most communities have an honor roll,” Orr said. “It's a shame that we don't. I think you can see the soul of a country by the way it treats its dead.”
The Civil War was the American conflict with the greatest loss of life at 700,000, but Orr has not included those veterans on the monument because accurate information is almost impossible to get. He has the names of 21 World War I veterans.
Six hundred thousand Americans were killed in World War II; 48 of them were from the Blairsville area. Two Blairsville area men are among the 36,000 killed in Korea while four were lost in Vietnam along with 60,000 other Americans.
The most recent casualty from Blairsville was Staff Sgt. Glen Stivison Jr. who was killed near Kandahar, Afghanistan, on Oct. 15, 2009.
Stivison was on a mission to assist other soldiers when he and three soldiers with him were killed by an improvised explosive device. Stivison has been posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Bronze Star. His younger brother, William, recently completed basic training with the Army National Guard.
The Kovalish family in Brenizer lost two sons to war. Lt. Anthony Kovalish, U.S. Army, died on Sept. 10, 1944 from wounds he had received two days before at St. Lazarre, France, in World War II.
Second Lt. Michael Kovalish was an Air Force pilot in the Korean War. His plane caught fire while making a strafing run and crashed into a hill behind enemy lines on Nov. 4, 1951. His remains were never found.
Joe Flasick of Brenizer knew both of the Kovalish brothers. “We were close,” he said. “I was in Germany during the Korean War when my mom wrote and said Mike got killed. If you knew someone and all of the sudden he got killed, it affected you.”
According to Flasick there were six or seven men from Brenizer killed in World War II: “It's a real small town and everyone knew each other. It was hard.”
Tom Christopher of Blairsville is working with the Defense Department to find and identify the remains of his uncle, Sgt. Ronald N. Christopher.
Ronald Christopher was killed while serving with the U.S. Army during the final Chinese Communist offensive at Pork Chop Hill in Korea. According to Tom Christopher, the information sent to the family indicates that Ronald Christopher was probably killed in a mortar attack, but his remains were never found. He still has transcripts of the telegram sent to his grandparents notifying them of their son's death.
“I never knew my uncle,” Tom Christopher said. “He was my father's brother. I was born on his (Ronald's) birthday on June 11, 1953. He was killed less than a month later on July 9.
“The Army is using DNA now to try to identify remains. When they got in touch with my family, they asked if there was a female relative still living, like maybe a sister. There wasn't. Both of my grandparents have died and my father was the only sibling. He died in a traffic accident in 1973.”
The only likely source of DNA for his uncle would have been from saliva on the seal of an envelope if the family still had any letters from him, but they didn't.
“I'm living in my grandparents' house where he grew up, but somehow as it passed through the family, all my uncle's letters disappeared,” Tom Christopher said.
Ronald Christopher corresponded with a friend, Ronald Petrarca of Blairsville, while he was in Korea, and Petrarca still had a letter. The envelope has been forwarded for testing.
“If he is found,” Tom Christopher said, “we'll bring him home for a proper burial.”
Orr is asking Blairsville area families who have a member who was lost during a military engagement with a declared enemy to contact him at 724-459-6390 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jeanette Wolff is a freelance writer.