Hueys and my Vietnam War book

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

Mary took this photo of me Aug. 4 in front of a UH-1 Huey helicopter at the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum in Rio Grande, N.J.

In 1998 when I was working on the story about my cousin Nicky’s death in Vietnam, I arranged to see a Huey helicopter up close at the Willow Grove Naval Air Station near Philadelphia. That was the kind of aircraft Nicky learned to fly in the spring of 1969 at Fort Rucker, Ala., but which he didn’t live long enough to fly in a combat zone. At Willow Grove, I was escorted to the tarmac where the Huey was parked. I put my hands on the sleek body, felt the smooth metal, examined the interior and took many pictures.

This June 9, my book Tragedy at Chu Lai was published by McFarland & Co., 21 years after I started the writing and research. My wife, Mary, and I followed that milestone this month with a three-day vacation to Cape May, N.J., on the last day touring the Naval Air Station Wildwood Aviation Museum. Among the more than two dozen aircraft on display in a World War II hangar were two Hueys, one of which had been flown in Vietnam. We took photos of ourselves posing in front of the iconic symbols of the war.

It seemed fitting that up-close encounters with the Bell UH-1 Iroquois had opened and closed the work on my book about Nicky. A 20-year-old pilot, he was undergoing Americal Division orientation at Chu Lai in July 1969, hoping to be assigned to the 176th Assault Helicopter Company. But he and his friend Billy Vachon and another soldier, Tim Williams, were cut down when an Army instructor teaching grenade safety unwittingly tossed a live grenade into their midst.

I invite you to join me at 1 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 10 at the Lehigh Valley Heritage Museum in Allentown, where I’ll be talking about the story and my long search for the details of how this deadly training accident happened. It will be a Q&A format, with my editor Ardith Hilliard asking questions. Copies of Tragedy at Chu Lai will be available for purchase, and I’ll be signing them. The book is available online at and from the publisher at Visit my website at For more about the Huey, go to the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center website at

How war veterans have touched my life

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman

Judy Greenhalgh, me and Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge at the group’s July 19 meeting in the Best Western outside Bethlehem. My wife, Mary, took the photo.

In 17 years of interviewing war veterans, I got back much more than I gave.

It was an honor and a privilege to meet with men and women who put on a uniform when the country called and did their duty, sometimes at risk of life and limb. I met with more than a hundred of them and considered all of them my friends. They taught me the meaning of courage and sacrifice. It hurts when I see the names and faces of the many who have since died.

I was grateful that veterans welcomed me into their homes and put their trust in me – a confidence that allowed some to reveal dangers they faced that they had never even told their own families about. Sometimes our conversations coaxed long-suppressed memories to the surface. During two interviews, I looked on dumbly as the old men fell from composure to shoulder-heaving sobs in a split second. It was post-traumatic stress flaring up after more than a half-century, exposing raw emotional wounds. The one veteran had just told me about bayoneting a German officer to death. The other was flatly describing the “canyon of death” that kamikazes created on his aircraft carrier.

Some found that talking about their experiences upset them. Joe Poster yelled at me once when I showed up at his door, saying I was causing old horrors to haunt him in the night. He had endured the Bataan Death March and three years as a prisoner of the Japanese.

When the stories made it into print and onto The Morning Call’s website, I had the satisfaction of seeing the veterans receive the attention and recognition they deserved, and of knowing their families were filled with pride. The night before publication of every story, I would ask God to be with my subject. One veteran, Poster, had told me he was anxious about his account being seen by perhaps tens of thousands of readers. He worried that people wouldn’t believe the fear and suffering he had known in the war. But weeks after his story ran, he told me excitedly, “Since that story was in, I can do no wrong!”

It was also rewarding to have a role in bringing long-ago foes together. One of my storytellers was Eddie Sakasitz, who had served in an anti-tank unit of the German army on the Eastern Front and in Italy, where he was machine-gunned in the legs. After his story ran, the Lehigh Valley Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge invited him to attend its monthly luncheon meetings. Almost until the end of his life, he did, bringing along his wife, Catherine. He liked to repeat a joke he and his Wehrmacht buddies used to tell: “We lost the First World War. We’ll win this one, too.” German soldiers, he explained, risked harsh punishment if officers heard them sounding defeatist. At one meeting, I saw Eddie sitting and chatting amiably with Ray Christman, another of my subjects. Captured by the Germans during the Bulge, Ray almost died in a POW camp.

Over the years, I had gone to meetings of veterans groups like the “I Was Shot At” club and the Lehigh Valley unit of the U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, both of which met at the City View Diner in Whitehall. But no group I spent time with was more active than the Bulge veterans, VBOB for short. I became an associate member about 20 years ago, when they were meeting at the Terrace restaurant in Walnutport, and interviewed many of its members, including longtime president Morris Metz. They now meet at the Best Western outside Bethlehem, still on the third Tuesday of each month.

Some interviews led to opportunities to present war stories at public events. While Don Burdick was telling me about his experience at Bastogne, he showed me something he had kept under wraps – gruesome photos he’d taken during the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp. That led me to write a follow-up story about Don and his collection of images. After that, the Jewish Federation of the Lehigh Valley invited me to do an on-stage interview with Don to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day. Several hundred people at the Jewish Community Center in Allentown heard Don articulately convey his horror over what he’d seen at the Nazi camp.

For this past Memorial Day, ArtsQuest invited me to do a program at the SteelStacks campus in south Bethlehem. I had three World War II veterans on stage, all men in their 90s whose stories I’ve written: Joseph E. Motil, who hit Utah Beach on D-Day; Carl A. Schroeter, who was captured by the Germans in the opening days of the Battle of the Bulge; and Bob Holden, a crewman aboard the USS Finback when the submarine rescued downed flier George W. Bush.

Such accounts exist beyond The Morning Call’s website, where they are permanently posted at The WWII stories also go to the archives at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

My work has always been about informing people of what servicemen and women have seen and accomplished, and preserving their remembrances for future generations. I don’t like the limelight; I’d much rather labor in the trenches. But after I retired from The Morning Call on July 1, VBOB turned the tables by saluting me, a non-veteran. My wife, Mary, and I were treated to lunch at the July 19 meeting and heard kind words from Dick Musselman, Lionel Adda, Judy Greenhalgh and others.

The VBOB group also presented gifts. They included a large, framed certificate showing the patches of all the major units that participated in the Battle of the Bulge, with a personal message thanking me for my “passion and perseverance in giving a voice to local veterans whose stories would have otherwise been lost to posterity, for bringing to light the personal accounts of bravery, courage and suffering of the local men and women who served in defense of our country’s values and freedoms.” I received an album of pictures showing many friends I’d made through my work, and a Case knife gift set commemorating V-E Day. I also got a written message from a great friend and admirer of the veterans, who congratulated me on my “contributions to the LV Chapter Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge.” The signer: Mario Andretti.

For many years, my reward has been in meeting veterans, spending time with them and getting their stories into the newspaper. This tribute from VBOB was icing on the cake, one of the nicest things that has happened to me.

The veterans I’ve known have given my life added meaning. I will always cherish their friendship.

A 17-year tally of war stories that had to be told

My last night of work at The Morning Call

My last night of work at The Morning Call in Allentown, after cleaning out my desk. My co-worker Frank Warner took the picture at shift’s end.

With my retirement from The Morning Call on July 1 after 32 years, I left behind a trove of stories about war veterans. I did an accounting in my last days at the newspaper and found that of 102 veterans I interviewed for my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series that started in 1999 — most of them from World War II — 63 have since died.

Here again is the sad reality: Sixty-two percent of the war veterans I’ve interviewed over the past 17 years have died.

It points to the importance of getting these stories told before they are lost to the ages. I’m glad I wrote them. Not only will these accounts live for future generations, but there was a personal reward in seeing the veterans’ pride over the recognition they received when their stories were published. It was meaningful work.

(I got a big thank you July 19 at the monthly meeting of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge. I’ll tell you about that later.)

My “In Their Own Words” series had a total of 112 stories. In five that I handled, the subject was deceased and his written remembrance appeared with the help of his family. Another five were written by other members of The Morning Call staff. Under the format, the veteran – not the writer – told his or her story, culled from recorded interviews and fashioned into a narrative. Sometimes the interviews extended over weeks or months and took countless hours.

The series had one veteran from the World War I era, Olaf Marthinson, who was 102 when reporter Ron Devlin and I interviewed him in 1999 about his role in the 1916 hunt for Mexican rebel leader Pancho Villa. There was one story from the Cold War, on Berlin Airlift pilot Harry D. Yoder; six Korean War stories; six Vietnam War stories; and one Iraq War story, on decorated helicopter pilot Michael B. Hultquist. The rest were all from World War II, including two who served in the German army.

You can read the “In Their Own Words” stories at In 2011, The Morning Call published a collection of my interviews in the book War Stories in Their Own Words, available online at

I wrote a dozen other war stories that were not in the “in their own words” format. These included an interview with reclusive World War II Medal of Honor recipient Alton W. Knappenberger that is posted on the Arlington National Cemetery website, interviews with Pearl Harbor radar men Joseph L. Lockard, Robert D. McKenney and Richard G. Schimmel, and a feature about Werner E. Schmiedel of Lehigh County, leader of the Lane Gang who was executed by the U.S. Army in 1945 for a violent crime spree that included his murder of an Italian civilian.

For the record, here is a list of the people I wrote about and the people whose stories appeared in the “In Their Own Words” series:

Olaf Marthinson (deceased), Willard “Bill” Haas (deceased), John Feninez Jr. (deceased), McRae A. Lilly (deceased), Dick Acker, Robert A. Carl (deceased), Oliver L. Cleaver (deceased), Frank J. Cudzil (deceased), John B. Dorsey (deceased), Lamar J.T. Farrel, Elizabeth Granger (deceased), Robert Holden, Marian Arner Jones (deceased), Earl “Lee” Leaser (deceased), Rothacker C. Smith Jr., Charles A. Yenser (deceased), James W. Murdy, Wilbur “Will” R. Weaver (deceased), John B. Desrosiers Jr. (deceased), John H. Minnich (deceased), Joseph T. Poster (deceased), Robert E. Serafin (deceased), Edward A. Goldschmidt (deceased), Ernest E. “Whitey” Eschbach (deceased), Paul R. Moyer (deceased), Julius Barkis (deceased), Earl R. Metz (deceased), Earl R. Schantzenbach (deceased), Rev. Edward W. McElduff, John C. Umlauf (deceased), Frank E. Speer (deceased), Robert F. Kauffman (deceased), Alton W. Knappenberger (deceased), Andrew V. Cisar (deceased), Ernest P. Leh (deceased), Benson B. Hartney Jr. (deceased), Joseph P. Anfuso, James A. Creech, James J. Ahern (deceased), Rolland J. “Joe” Correll, Harold E. Saylor (deceased), Jared S. “Jerry” Webre (deceased), Aleck H. Jensen (deceased), Joseph B. Moore (deceased), Florence B. Michaels (deceased), Charles J. Toth (deceased), Howard W. “Bench” Hartman (deceased), Evangeline R. Coeyman, Daniel Hasenecz (deceased), Clifford Ryerson (deceased), Jack Davis (deceased), Edward Sakasitz (deceased), Horace F. Rehrig (deceased), Joseph E. Motil, Charles Kowalchuk (deceased), Richard G. Schimmel, Bohdan T. Pacala (deceased), Robert J. Hutchings, William J. Walker (deceased), Raymond J. Christman Jr., Dr. John J. Hoch, Chris R. Showalter, Warren “Jake” Fegely (deceased), Warren G.H. “Pete” Peters (deceased), Donald W. Burdick, Joseph L. Szczepanski (deceased), Daniel L. Curatola, Nathan Kline, Graydon “Woody” Woods (deceased), Alfred R. Taglang (deceased), Louis H. Vargo, Hank Kudzik, Dick Richards (deceased), E. Duncan Cameron (deceased), Donald F. Mack (deceased), Samuel F. Shireman (deceased), Stanley A. Parks (deceased), Burdell S. Hontz, John A. Caponigro (deceased), John “Reds” Urban (deceased), Jerome Y. Neff (deceased), Ralph H. Mann (deceased), Donald E. Miller, Joseph L. Lockard (deceased), Robert D. McKenney (deceased), Bert Winzer, Robert H. Gangewere, William R. Munsch (deceased), Gloria Mitchell, Robert L. Kroner (deceased), Walter Kuchinos, Dick Schermerhorn, Bill Fritz, Clifford A. Hahn (deceased), Raymond F. Davis, Walter A.L. King (deceased), Pauline Haydt Minnich, Carl A. Schroeter, Charles L. Gubish, Carl J. Manone (deceased), Morris D. Metz, William E. D’Huyvetters, Werner E. Schmiedel (executed by U.S. Army), Leonard V. Siegfried, Garrett S. Runey, Charles F. Remington (deceased), Walter Warda, Harold G. “Gordon” Higgins, Harry D. Yoder (deceased), Francis Phillips (deceased), Randolph Rabenold, Robert W. Reichard, Cecelia Ann Sulkowski (deceased), Gene Salay (deceased), Jim W. Snyder Jr. (deceased), Victor L. Doddy (killed in Vietnam), Bernard J. Dugan, Juan Jimenez (deceased), Levi “Chip” Borger Jr., Clifford J. Treese, Eric R. Shimer, Michael B. Hultquist.

‘We were all in our skivvies, running around like mad’

Jerry Winslow in The Daily Record of Coatesville, Pa., 1991

Pearl Harbor survivor Jerry Winslow in the Dec. 3, 1991, edition of The Daily Record of Coatesville, Pa.

Imagine it’s 8 a.m. Dec. 7, 1941, and you’re trying to wake up the hung-over guys in your Army barracks on Oahu because the Japanese are attacking. Your “buddies” respond by blasting you with obscenities and everything they can get their hands on without moving from their cots.

Wait, I need to back up here.

Over the holidays, my aunt Hilda Tarlecky handed me a newspaper that had a story marking the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack. She thought I’d be interested in talking to the man whose picture was at the top of Page 1, a longtime friend of hers named Jerry Winslow.

An attack survivor, Jerry had been interviewed by The Daily Record of Coatesville in southeastern Pennsylvania. The story, under the headline “The Day Still Lives in Infamy: Pearl Harbor Remembered,” ran Dec. 3, 1991. At the time, Jerry lived in neighboring Downingtown, my hometown.

Aunt Hilda, who is my mom’s older sister, and Jerry’s wife, Lorraine, were in the Women’s Club together and loved to sew, their hands turning out fine needlework and quilting. They lived only about a half-mile apart and liked to trade cooking recipes. Lorraine died in 2010.

My aunt was a week shy of 92 when she gave me Jerry’s story during a family party just before Christmas. In my many years of interviewing veterans for The Morning Call in Allentown, I’d done stories on 13 Pearl Harbor survivors, or just 12 percent of all the war stories I’d written.

I was intrigued, so last week I called Jerry, who is 99 years old and now lives in Kennett Square. He sounded pleased to hear from me and was eager to talk. He had grown up in Chicago, attended a Catholic high school and was drafted. The Army sent him to Hawaii, where he was a private with the 41st Coast Artillery at Fort Kamehameha.

The base had coastal gun batteries for the defense of Pearl Harbor. Jerry’s job was to help load 8-inch guns. He wasn’t thrilled to be there.

“I had no use for the Army,” he said. “I didn’t give a darn.”

Early Sunday, Dec. 7, Jerry went to church and then ate pancakes at the mess hall. Only three or four other guys were there. The others were sleeping off a long night of drinking and carousing.

Suddenly, there was noise outside. Jerry and the others with him in the mess hall ran to the door and opened it.

“Down the main drag of the island, these planes were coming down, almost touching the ground. I didn’t know they were Japanese planes, didn’t have the faintest idea. I had watched the Navy go out the day before and thought it was a war game, so I was waving at these Japanese planes. One guy flew close to me, and he turned his head. Did he wave back at me? I’ve often wondered when I look back. I know he turned to look. I think he was bewildered, trying to see what was waving at him.

“Somebody grabbed me and said hey, you stupid so and so, the Japanese are attacking us!”

Jerry ran to the barracks to alert the other soldiers.

“They were all dead drunk, a bunch of bums. I’m yelling at them: ‘We’re being attacked, we’re being attacked!’ And all of a sudden all these things began to be thrown at me, pillows, shoes, I never saw so much stuff going through the air – and the language!

“But then, one of the planes came over and strafed the barracks. I’ll never forget it for as long as I live – det-det-det-det. I looked up and saw these holes in the corrugated tin roof. And these guys who were yelling and screaming at me, everybody looked up and realized within a hundredth of a second that it was true.”

A sergeant smashed the barracks locker that held their Springfield rifles. They went outside and fired at the Zero fighters.

“We were all in our skivvies, running around like mad. The Japanese kept strafing. We fired at them with our Springfields. They were old-fashioned rifles, but they were good, they were accurate. I fired mine so much, the barrel got hot.”

As the battle raged, Jerry saw something that still disturbs him. A few enemy planes were shot down, one near the mess hall, and he watched as Americans pounced on the injured pilot.

“Guys were pulling the pilot out of the plane and doing bad things to him. To pull them out of the planes and take them apart while they were still alive!

“I remember that night we were settling down, getting a little chow. I couldn’t eat because I remembered what they did. [But] I had no love for the Japanese. They were destroying my life; they were destroying my buddies.”

Jerry and others from his base were trucked to the northern part of the island and put up barbed wire on the beaches, anticipating an invasion that never came. Jerry was surprised by that.

“The Japanese could have walked onto that island, took it right over.”

Later, Jerry was sent back to the States to Officer Candidate School and spent the rest of the war as a lieutenant in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific islands. He went home to Chicago, worked in a Sinclair Oil Corp. research lab and got married. He and Lorraine had four daughters and moved to Pennsylvania.

Looking back on the Pearl Harbor attack, Jerry tried to find the words to describe the confusion and terror.

“Your brain doesn’t work right,” he said. “You try to analyze what’s happening, but you can’t pull things apart. You’re upset, I guess. All I could think was: I’m not going home. There’s a war on.”

A long time coming: my Vietnam story

My story about what happened to my cousin in Vietnam

Cover of my book, to be published this spring or summer

In 1994, when I learned how my cousin Nicky Venditti was killed in the Vietnam War, I set out to write about him. We had hardly known each other. He was five years older, and we grew up in different towns near Philly.

But we had a big Italian family in common. Our dads were among a dozen children of an immigrant from central Italy. (Two of Grandpop’s sons, including Nicky’s dad, spelled our surname differently, with an “i” on the end instead of an “a.” I’ll tell you the story behind that another time.)

Nicky was a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot when he went to Vietnam in the summer of 1969. He was dead in 11 days. The truth about what happened to him shocked me. The Americal Division told his parents he was mortally wounded when a grenade accidentally went off during an orientation class at LZ Bayonet, just outside the big Army base at Chu Lai. He died five days later, on July 15, at the 312th Evacuation Hospital on the base.

I’d always thought he was killed by the enemy.

One part of writing about Nicky was to re-create his life and follow his path to Vietnam. I could do that through interviews with friends and family. But finding out exactly what happened in that Army classroom on July 10, 1969, was not so easy. It took me many years, because no record of an investigation exists. The military had mishandled its response to the incident, doing a disservice to Nicky’s family and the families of two other young soldiers who died with him, Billy Vachon and Tim Williams.

Twenty-one years have passed since the reality of Nicky’s fate caught my eye. Soon you will be able to read the story I put together over those two decades. It will be published this spring or summer by McFarland & Co. under the title Tragedy at Chu Lai. Information about it is on McFarland’s online catalog at, where you can pre-order it, if you like.

This is more than a war story. It’s also a life-affirming reconstruction of family, friendship, loyalty and small-town life in 1960s America, the small town being Malvern, Pa., where Nicky grew up.

After 70 years, a WWII prayer book is back with its owner

Bob Serafin with World War II prayer book.

Bob Serafin holds his World War II prayer book. I took the photo on April 30.

World War II holds countless mysteries. Here’s a small one that had a big impact on a former soldier I know:

Last November I got an email from a Susan Senger in Minneapolis. While cleaning out a bookcase, she found a decades-old little book, a Prayer Book for Catholic Servicemen. It had a signature in the back, Robert E. Serafin, and an Army serial number. She didn’t recognize the name, so she did a Web search and got a hit.

Susan found that in May 2002, I had done an interview with a Robert E. Serafin as part of my “War Stories: In Their Own Words” series in The Morning Call. Some 100 of these stories going back to 1999 have a permanent home on the newspaper’s website at

A career soldier, Bob had served in both World War II and the Vietnam War. You can read my interview with him here:

Susan wrote that if she’d found the right Robert Serafin, she’d like to send him the prayer book.

Right away I was certain that the Bob I knew was the one she was looking for. The first name, middle initial and last name matched. Bob had been in the Army. He was a Catholic.

But how did a prayer book he’d had in the 1940s turn up in a home in Minneapolis?

I emailed Susan the address and phone number of the assisted living facility in Allentown where Bob was a resident. She contacted the place, which put her in touch in with his son, who lives in Slatington.

The book was Bob’s. He was thrilled.

Susan put it in the mail for him Dec. 1 and included a letter offering information that might help determine why her family had it. She said she’d been cleaning out a bookcase that held books once belonging to her grandmother, Zella Rutledge, and her mother, Helen Rutledge. Helen, who was born in 1923, married Louis Smith in the 1940s, and the couple might have lived in Columbus, Ohio, for a while. They divorced and Helen married Susan’s dad, Robert Senger. He’d been in the Navy during World War II but never left the U.S. She thought he was on the West Coast.

Susan said Bob might have crossed paths with her uncle, Boyd A. Rutledge, known as “Bud” or “Buddy.” He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge and held by the Germans at Stalag IX-B, a notorious prisoner-of-war camp near Bad Orb in Hesse, Germany.

“I have no idea how my family ended up with your prayer book,” Susan wrote.

Bob’s son, also named Bob, wrote back and thanked her on behalf of his grateful dad.

Bob Serafin as a soldier

Bob Serafin as a soldier

Last week I finally got around to visiting Bob, now 92 and still sharp. When I asked about the prayer book, he grinned and pulled it out of a drawer.

“It knocked me over,” he said about getting it back.

But he has no idea how it got to Minneapolis.

“I don’t know any of these guys,” he said of the names Susan mentioned. “I’ve never heard of this family, and I’ve never been to Minnesota. The closest I’ve been to Minnesota is Chicago.”

Bob came from Plains, just north of Wilkes-Barre. He said a Catholic priest gave him the prayer book in 1943 while he was in training at either Camp McCain in Mississippi or Camp Carson in Colorado. After that, he guarded German POWs in Colorado and Wyoming until the late summer of 1944, when he was reassigned as a hospital orderly. In February 1945 he landed in France as a corporal with a mobile hospital unit, the 84th Field Hospital, which followed the U.S. 1st Army deep into Germany.

Somewhere along the way, the book vanished.

“I don’t remember losing it or anything about it,” Bob said.

He wonders if it might somehow have gotten into Bud Rutledge’s hands at Stalag IX-B.

The book is less than a quarter-inch thick. It includes prayers for peace, for the civil authorities and for Pope Pius XII – the pontiff during World War II — as well as the Lord’s Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Act of Contrition. On the last page, Bob wrote his full name and serial number in ink.

In 1963, he went to Vietnam as a military police investigator, serving at the Criminal Investigation Division office in Saigon. He returned to Southeast Asia in 1966 as a CID agent in Thailand. In 1978 he retired as a chief warrant officer.

Susan’s contact with Bob was not the first time someone connected with him after seeing his story online. In January 2014, a man emailed me that he was doing research on letters his father wrote home while serving in the 84th Field Hospital.

“I’m trying to put all the pieces from the letters together and thought of reaching out to Mr. Serafin for any additional info he might have,” he wrote.

I told him where to find Bob, and Bob told me that the writer visited him.

How Bob’s prayer book changed hands, presumably during World War II, and turned up in Minneapolis might never be known. What’s important is, after 70 years and thanks to Susan Senger, he has it.

‘We all have a job to do’

Korea/Vietnam Memorial

Armed Forces Plaza at Lehigh Carbon Community College on Sunday after 10th anniversary program

The Korea/Vietnam Memorial marked its 10th anniversary Sunday at Lehigh Carbon Community College with teary-eyed speakers, tributes to veterans whose names are etched on new pavers in the Armed Forces Plaza and recognition of a World War II warrior, my friend Bert Winzer.

Bert, 92, of Lower Macungie stood in the national limelight in February when he and other surviving members of the elite American-Canadian commando unit, the 1st Special Service Force, received the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington, D.C. Bert brought the medal with him to LCCC and spoke with warmth and humor about his wartime experience in the Devil’s Brigade.

Bert Winzer

Bert Winzer as a World War II commando

When he was wounded in 1944, he told the crowd in his favorite line, “It was an international incident. German artillery fired from Italy into France hit me, an American; a Canadian gave me first aid; and a Russian-American Jewish doctor operated on me.”

I had met Bert at one of the annual banquets of Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, Military Order of the Purple Heart, and interviewed him for my Morning Call series, “War Stories: In Their Own Words.” The story ran on Memorial Day 2012. I wrote about Bert again a year later when he received a long-overdue Bronze Star medal. After he got the Congressional Gold Medal, he was invited back to Washington, this time to the French Embassy, to receive the French Legion of Honor. Bad weather kept him from going, though, and instead the medal was mailed to him. He was also honored this month at a meeting of the Lower Macungie Township Board of Commissioners.

His happy appearance at Sunday’s event contrasted with somber remembrances by family and friends of soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines no longer living. Songs sung by Erin Kelly, who performed at the first KVM ceremony in 2005, reminded everyone of what sacrifice is about — the national anthem, “I’m Proud To Be an American,” “God Bless America.” Names of vets added to pavers were read – Jack Covington, John Groller, Robert Hargreaves and a dozen others — and their family members came forward. At the end, a three-volley rifle salute by American Legion Post 576 and the playing of taps cemented the mood.

As a non-veteran, I felt out of place in this gathering of a few hundred as I looked around at the attendees, among them Vietnam vets in their biker jackets. All were attentive and deeply respectful, drawn together by camaraderie that I can’t hope to identify with. Bert summed it up as he closed his speech: “I’m the same as all of you. We all have a job to do. We do it. We’re all heroes.”