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Valley veterans join in dedication of World War II Memorial

| Sunday, May 30, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C.- Every so often Lud labutka's eyes would dart out of the restaurant window at the MCI Center.

Men with blue and yellow hats were of particular interest to the 82-year-old Ford City man.

"Is that guy airborne?" Labutka would ask. But each time he would answer his own question with phrases such as "na, but I've never seen a hat like that," and his attention quickly would shift back to the matter at hand: a cold Budweiser beer used to cleanse his pallet after a steak dinner.

Labutka, who wore a blue and yellow 101st Airborne cap, was a member of the Army's 101 Airborne Division, and one of his major goals during the weekend was to find other men who jumped out of airplanes behind enemy lines.

The Ford City man was coaxed into becoming a paratrooper by friends while sitting at a bar, in 1941, shortly after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Labutka had been in the National Guard since 1939.

The topic of paratroopers came up, and Labutka's response was, "Why the heck would I want to jump out of airplanes?" But that response may have changed his life forever.

"My friend Rich Dinger said, Lud, you're a chicken, and that's what got me to join."

He said he and four other friends accepted the challenge that would throw them into the front lines of the largest war in American history. Labutka made two combat jumps, one in Normandy, and the other in Holland during World War II. The Ford City man was accompanied by Kiski Area English and journalism teacher Richard Beranty, who wrote a story about Labutka that appeared in a national World War II magazine.

Officials from a publication about the 101st Airborne Division asked Beranty if they could use the article in their journal, and Beranty agreed.

As for his compensation, "I said it would be nice if you pay Lud's way to Washington, D.C., something I was going to do anyway," Beranty said. "They agreed and sent me a check."

Labutka'a story was one of more than 120,000 told during the weekend in the massive sea of humanity gathered to dedicate the World War II Memorial.

The memorial was marked by perfect late spring weather. Dignitaries included former President George Bush, and former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, both World War II veterans; actor Tom Hanks, star of the World War II drama "Saving Private Ryan;" and thousands of proud veterans.

It was an event that almost all in attendance agreed was long overdue.

Men and women veterans easily were recognized because of their age and clothing. Many wore old uniforms, American Legion hats and shirts letting people know which military branch they were in. The veterans mixed with friends, sons and daughters, wives, and those who just wanted to honor what has been called the Greatest Generation.

Meigan Butler, originally of New Kensington, accompanied her father-in-law, Dick Butler, a 79-year-old Army veteran from New Kensington, to the event.

Meigan Butler fondly recalled the days when her father, Bud Guiney, and Dick Butler used to share war stories. Guiney died 14 years ago and is one of about 12 million veterans who never will be able to see the memorial dedicated to a generation which sacrificed so much to preserve our freedom and way of life.

"He would be very proud of this," Meigan Butler said with a look of satisfaction on her face.

Dick Butler was the catalyst behind the trip, organizing a bus that took a contingent of about 43 people representing Lower Burrell VFW Post 92.

"I thought it would be nice if we got a bus together and came down here," he said. He admitted it was a lot of work, but he took on the responsibility.

"Somebody had to do it," he said. Robert Traenker, 81, of New Kensington also had to make the trip.

His daughter, Elaine Mock of Apollo, said she and her husband brought Traenker to Washington, D.C., several years ago and he was puzzled why there was no World War II memorial.

"My husband said when it's built we'll come back. My father said, 'I'll be dead by that time'," she said with a laugh.

Dennis Gianotti, a New Kensington native and Vietnam veteran, went along with his father-in -law, Nick Tullai of Ford City, an Army veteran who was wounded in Africa.

He said he told Tullai years ago that he would take the now 86-year-old veteran to the memorial when it was built.

Tullai said he considered Saturday's event a celebration for all veterans.

"I think it's very just that they get their due too," he said. "I'm just so happy for these veterans."

Donna Gray of Washington Township wanted to come to see what her mother helped to pay for. Her father, Paul Vitina, who lived in Apollo, died, and her mother, Sandy Vitina, sent several donations to help build the $174 million structure. But Sandy Vitina recently passed away and will never get a chance to see the monument.

"We just wanted to see what she contributed to," Gray said.

The stories go on and on, with one common theme. The brave men and women who gave so much of their time, energy and some, the ultimate sacrifice, in order to cure the world of dictators who wanted to instill their will on the United States and the world.

Perhaps Beranty put it best.

"The reason we are here is because of guys like him," he said while flashing a smile to Labutka.

Labutka responded with a shy smile of his own and look of humility, a typical reaction from a generation which did so much. Additional Information:

Quotables

'It's our last hurrah. I'd love to march in one last grand parade.'

-- Fred Howell, of Lower Burrell VFW Post 92, who loaded bombs for B-29s in the Pacific.

'What does it mean?It means the life and blood of those who sacrificed.'

-- Lionell Balcom of Lower Burrell.

'It means everything.'

-- Joe Hamilton, 80, of Lower Burrell, who spent 27 months on the destroyer escort USS Eichenberger. Of the original crew of 210, 15 are left.

'The memorial means a lot to me. Because of the sacrifices of others. I get to see what happened, what happens.'

-- Kenneth McCandless, Post 92 member from Grove City,

'I knew McGill was in that tank. It got hit and burst into flames. McGill is the guy I picture. I see his body in the tank. He would have been alive today.'

-- Henry Elefante, of Vandergrift, about war-time friend, Ed McGill, of Chicago.

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