Mt. Pleasant Township veteran part of dwindling ‘Greatest Generation’
When Army veteran Frank Emanuel injured his back, a physician feared the worst.
“He thought I had cancer,” Emanuel, 95, recalled of his hospital visit more than 45 years ago.
The Mt. Pleasant Township man set the doctor’s mind at ease. What showed up as white spots on the X-ray were tiny shrapnel fragments remaining from a wound he received three decades earlier, while he was stationed in Italy with the 36th Infantry Division, battling German forces on a hill above the town of San Pietro.
On Jan. 2, 1944, “a small mortar landed right behind me,” said Emanuel, a second-generation Italian-American. “That’s how close I was to the Germans” — in an olive grove below, manning a radio to help direct Allied fire.
“I was sitting behind a rock, and the antenna of my radio was up in the air,” he said. “I think that’s why they fired that mortar, they saw the sun shining on it.”
Though they couldn’t remove all the shrapnel from Emanuel’s back and head, he gives the military physicians credit for what they were able to do to help him heal under less-than-ideal conditions. He’s had no lasting pain from his wounds and, after six weeks of hospital care, he was back with his unit, relocated near neighboring Cassino — where he witnessed the controversial Allied bombing of the monastery on the heights of Monte Cassino.
“They said I was well enough to go back to combat,” Emanuel said. “They needed my radio expertise,” along with his fluency in Italian, that helped in conversing with local civilians.
Seventy-five years later, Emanuel remains a vital force. Retired from making molds for glass production, he no longer bowls or golfs, but he keeps up with his favorite sports teams on TV and tends a raised-bed vegetable garden with help from his daughters.
In contrast, growing numbers of his “Greatest Generation” of veterans are succumbing to the ravages of old age. The alarming figures, to Emanuel, are “unbelievable.”
Based on statistics from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the National WWII Museum notes a little more than 389,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are still alive. Pennsylvania accounts for about 20,600 of them. Florida is first with close to 39,000.
Nearly 300 die each day across the United States. Pennsylvania’s World War II service members are projected to dwindle to little more than 3,000 by 2025.
It’s an inevitable trend — passing of older members, including those who served in World War II — that has affected area veterans organizations.
Commander David Cackowski, 56, estimates the Greensburg VFW post honor guard participates in close to 180 funerals for local veterans annually. The average age of the post’s remaining members hovers near 60.
“There is reason for concern. You don’t see a tremendous amount of participation from the younger generation. I understand they have their own challenges,” he said. “I very much look forward to more of them joining at the post and becoming active members. There are a few.”
Officers at the West Deer American Legion post have similarly witnessed the ebbing numbers of World War II veterans. Though gone, they are far from forgotten.
Each Memorial Day, the Legion post remembers 55 West Deer service members killed in 20th century conflicts dating back to World War II, which accounts for the majority of those honored dead. It offers the same tribute to 287 area World War II veterans listed on a memorial at the nearby Bairdford post office — nine who were killed in action.
“We recite all the names on our memorial out of respect, and we sound a bell for recognition,” said Dennis Martinez, the post’s financial officer and former adjutant. “A trumpeter plays Taps, the rifle corps comes out, and we have a chaplain do a prayer service.”
A meeting in suburban Pittsburgh, where 30 World War II veterans shared stories of their experiences, was the starting point 11 years ago for the nonprofit Veterans Breakfast Club. Since then, the group has branched out, organizing similar events in Allegheny and neighboring counties, for veterans of all eras and nonveterans eager to hear their stories. It also has embarked on a related oral history initiative.
This year, with the window of opportunity getting ever more narrow, the organization is once again focusing its efforts on engaging with World War II veterans, according to executive director Todd DePastino.
The club attracted 55 veterans of that war to its fifth annual gala, held Aug. 23 at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square. “We talked about each veteran’s service,” DePastino said. “It was quite a wonderful evening.
“It’s been a delight and a privilege to be in the presence of these men and women who made history. They share stories from literally around the world. You really get an overwhelming sense of what a total war effort it was.”
DePastino urges all area residents to ask the older veterans in their families and neighborhoods about their World War II experiences. “Once they’re gone, those stories are lost,” he said.
DePastino has witnessed the bond that can occur among veterans of World War II and those of the current War on Terror. He noted many of the older generation were roused to serve following the attack on Pearl Harbor, just as the 9/11 terrorist attacks motivated more recent veterans.
“It’s an amazing thing to behold when the generations connect,” he said.
Emanuel experienced that connection in 2008, during one of two trips he made with family members to revisit the Italian battlegrounds where he served. During a chance encounter with a British soldier, who was touring Monte Cassino, Emanuel agreed to share his firsthand perspective of the battle with other young British troops who were on their way home from Afghanistan.
“They were taken aback that I had been there,” he said. “They asked me all kinds of questions and came up and shook my hand.”
After Allied forces broke through the obstacles near Monte Cassino, Emanuel continued to participate in rolling back the enemy — including the liberation of Rome, a landing on the French Riviera and the push through France into Germany.
Recognizing the part he played in the liberation of Southern France, Emanuel in 2014 was awarded the French Legion of Honor medal during a ceremony at the French Embassy in Washington, D.C.
“I walked across France, protected behind a tank, with my radio strapped on my back,” he said. “They’d fire the tank, and the shell [casing] would go over my head.”
One of the more disturbing wartime experiences for Emanuel was observing Jewish survivors of recently liberated German concentration camps.
“I felt sorry for them,” he said. “They were so thin and drawn, and they lived like that for years.”
Drafted in February 1943, Emanuel made it back home to Westmoreland County in October 1945.
Overseas, he said, “I was scared all the time. I never thought I’d ever live to be 95 years old.”
Jeff Himler is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jeff at 724-836-6622, [email protected] or via Twitter .