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Western Pennsylvania Battle of Bulge vets mark anniversary of WWII showdown

| Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012, 5:35 p.m.
Veterans of The Battle of the Bulge (from left), Leroy 'Whitey' Schaller, Chester Lapa, Joseph Folino, Harry McCracken, along with VFW Post 33 Honor Guard member Richard Fry salute during the ceremony commemorating the event on December 15, 2012 in Hempfield Township. Eric Schmadel | Tribune-Review

On a brisk Saturday morning at the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory in Hempfield, four veterans from the Battle of the Bulge gathered for what might be the last time to commemorate the anniversary of the last great battle of World War II in Western Europe.

“The old soldiers are fading away,” Joseph A. Folino, 90, of Hempfield said after the 15-minute Battle of the Bulge Remembrance Day service conducted by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 33 of Greensburg.

Folino, who paraphrased Gen. Douglas MacArthur's famous quote that “old soldiers never die, they just fade away,” was joined by fellow Battle of the Bulge veterans Leroy “Whitey” Schaller, 90, of Fairfield Township, Harry McCracken, 90, of Penn Township and Chester Lapa, 87, of Greensburg in laying a wreath at the Battle of the Bulge memorial in front of the Armory.

The four men are veterans of the battle that began Dec. 16, 1944, when the Germans began a last-gas offensive against Allied forces in the Ardennes Forest of Belgium and Luxembourg. The surprise attack created a “bulge” in the American lines, and the battle raged on until late January, resulting in about 80,000 Allied casualties, including about 20,000 Americans killed. German casualties were estimated at more than 100,000.

The four Army veterans are the last survivors of the recently disbanded Western Pennsylvania Chapter 14 of the Battle of the Bulge, Schaller said.

The group had 67 members when it was formed in 1990, said Schaller, who was captured by the Germans on the second day of the battle. There were about a dozen at the ceremony last year, but their ranks have thinned since then. They just lost one of their comrades, James W. Herrington, 91, of Greensburg, last month.

The four men say they hope they can commemorate the battle next year, but it will depend on their health.

“They will take over after we aren't here,” Folino said, referring to members of the VFW Post. The VFW members will continue the tradition of the Battle of the Bulge memorial service, said George Klekner, honor guard chaplain for the VFW Post.

“We owe them everything. None of us would enjoy the freedom and the liberty that have been our birthright,” if it had not been for their sacrifice, Klekner said.

“You've been called the ‘Greatest Generation,' and you certainly are,” Klekner said.

What they have kept with them all these decades are the memories of the battle and the bitterly cold weather they had to endure.

“We all froze over there that day,” said Folino, recalling the bitter cold of the winter of 1944-45.

Folino, who was a member of a tank destroyer unit under Gen. George Patton during the battle, said he was one of the lucky ones because he could sleep atop his vehicle, under a few blankets and with the engine running.

Lapa was not so lucky. He was in an open field in Luxembourg, sleeping in the open in below-zero weather. The ground was so frozen that soldiers could not dig a foxhole with their shovel. It was barely a slit trench in the snow, he said.

“I got frostbite on my feet and spent three months in the hospital in Wales,” Lapa said.

For Schaller, the Battle of the Bulge was over within the first two days of the offensive.

The Germans had come within about 30 feet of his position in Luxembourg on the night before the attack began.

“They had us and did not know it,” Schaller said.

Outmanned 10-to-1, he and 15 fellow soldiers were surrounded the second day of the offensive and surrendered.

Unlike the U.S. quartermaster detachment that surrendered at Malmedy, Belgium, and had 81 of its members massacred by Germans, Schaller's group was marched off to Germany, where he spent most of the remainder of the war in a prisoner of war camp.

McCracken was a 22-year-old combat medic with the 99th Infantry Division, just when the Germans smashed into the Allied lines. He said he knew the Germans had begun an attack but did not know the extent of it.

“We didn't know what was going on until a week or so later,” McCracken said.

It was such a surprise because “we were all told that by Christmas, the war would be over,” he recalled

McCracken earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart when he was hit by a bullet in the leg. Ignoring his own wound, he tended to a military police officer who was shot in the left shoulder and bleeding.

“If I had not been there to take care of him, he would have bled to death. I was just doing my job,” McCracken said.

Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-836-5252 or jnapsha@tribweb.com.

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