On anniversary, veterans honor dwindling survivors of the Battle of the Bulge
Each year there were fewer World War II veterans and a few more memorial bricks at the Battle of the Bulge memorial outside the National Guard armory in Hempfield until there was only Staff Sgt. Joseph Folino.
Folino, 95, of Jeannette is one of only a handful of local veterans who served in the Battle of the Bulge, the last-ditch Nazi offensive that began Dec. 16, 1944. On Saturday, he was the only survivor able to make it to the ceremony, where he laid a wreath at the memorial before the Greensburg VFW Honor Guard gave a 21-gun salute.
“After the war, there was a lot of us around here, and we organized a chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. Four years ago, we had to dissolve; there was nobody left,” Folino said. Part of an anti-tank unit, he recalled the bitter cold, the snow and hypothermia that was nearly as deadly as the Germans, and the Christmas Day lifting of bad weather that allowed air support to get off the ground and turn the tide in the Allies' favor.
Once, dozens and dozens of local veterans would meet each year to mark the occasion and organize a luncheon. Members, including Folino, would visit history classes at Saint Vincent College, where they'd meet veterans of other wars.
“We're very fortunate that Joe's with us today, and he's not alone here,” said George “G.C.” Kleckner, who led the ceremony for the honor guard. “All the blood brothers Joe served with, some of them his best friends ... they are here in spirit.”
As the battle veterans' numbers dwindled, the chapter dissolved and donated what was left in its treasury to the honor guard at VFW Post 33 to carry on the memorial.
“I met this group at Saint Vincent, through their ‘Faces of Battle' program,” VFW member Paul Yeckel said. “I met a lot of them before they started to pass away or get homebound.”
Agnes Lapa, widow of battle veteran Chester Lapa, was among the veterans' family members attending the ceremony. She recalled a trip to Luxembourg and Belgium she took with her husband before he passed, where they found themselves honored by many there. She thanked the VFW for continuing the tradition.
“We'd thank them for their hospitality, and they thanked us for liberating them.” she said. “This is very special to have this done in memory of our loved ones.”
Before removing his coat to reveal his uniform and lay the silver wreath in front of the memorial, Folino paused to reflect on what brings him back year after year.
“I'm here to remember my buddies. I made it,” Folino said. “I'm forcing myself, but I'm glad I'm here.”