The motto of the Vietnam Veterans of America is plain and simple: “Never again will one generation of veterans abandon another.”
Mayfair resident Steven Uchniat, president of the Vietnam Veterans Liberty Bell, VVA Chapter 266, made good on that promise by bringing his members to meet veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II’s most decisive and bloodiest engagements.
These aging soldiers, now in their 80s and 90s, had asked for a chance to pass the torch on to the younger generation of Vietnam veterans.
“These old-timers are not going to be forgotten,” said Uchniat, 63, about the meeting on March 27 that brought together former soldiers who all served a common cause — fighting for their nation.
More than 40 WWII and Vietnam vets from across the region attended the meeting of the Delaware Valley Chapter of Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, which was held at the U.S. Coast Guard base on the Delaware River. In addition to the Liberty Bell chapter members, Vietnam veterans from Chapter 899 in Bordentown, N.J., led by president Don Smieszek, also attended.
“It’s like a brotherhood, y’know?” said Bridesburg resident Paul Wafalowski, 63, a private first class during Vietnam and member of VVA chapter 266. “We’re not the little kids on the block no more. It’s our turn. In a couple years, we’re going to be the elder statesmen.”
And these vets have plenty to talk about, according to Wafalowski.
“Anyone from the military, no matter whether it was 60 years ago, or, in our case 40 years ago, 20 years ago, 10 years ago — it’s all the same thing,” he said. “Politically, it was different, but as far as being in the military, there’s really no difference.”
The Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge included Romeo A. Battilana, 89, of Rhawnhurst in Northeast Philadelphia.
Battilana, who was a private first class, bemoaned the lack of knowledge young Americans have of the history of sacrifices their nation was built upon.
“You ask any high school kid what the Battle of the Bulge is — they don’t know,” Battilana said. “They don’t know that, if we hadn’t pushed the Germans back, they would’ve won.”
The Battle of the Bulge is generally considered Germany’s last stand during World War II. It was a confrontation between German forces and the Allies that stretched over a 120-mile long battlefield that cut across Belgium, Luxembourg and France. The battle lasted more than a month, from Dec. 16, 1944, to Jan. 25, 1945. It was also the largest and bloodiest battle fought by U.S. soldiers, with about 90,000 casualties on the American side, including an estimated 19,000 killed.
After the Americans won, Battilana’s infantry division freed prisoners in Nazi concentration camps.
Matthew Deluga, 93, also of Rhawnhurst, was a sergeant in World War II in Gen. George Patton’s Third Army. He also witnessed concentration camps, he said, but he didn’t want to get close.
“The generals said, ‘Take a look at this,’ but we didn’t go. We were front-liners. We didn’t want to see emaciated people,” Deluga recalled.
Deluga’s memories of war include seeing a fellow soldier whose leg was blown off demand that other soldiers with more life-threatening injuries receive medical aid first.
Deluga also remembered being drafted when he was just a “dumb 19-and-a-half-year-old kid.”
“After I passed the medical test, the sergeant said, ‘What do you want to join, the Coast guard, Navy, Army, or Marines?’ I said, ‘Let me talk it over with my mother.’ He said, ‘OK, you’re going to the Army,’” Deluga recalled, chuckling.
It’s the same kind of story that is recalled by a later generation of vets like Wafalowski.
“I was young and dumb, and a lot of guys wanted to go over,” Wafalowski said. “I graduated Frankford [High School] June 13 of 1967. And June 13 of ’68, I was landing in Vietnam.”
This intergenerational veterans’ meeting was organized by Mike Ciquero of Rockledge, himself a former Navy Seabee who served in the Philippines during WWII. He joined the Battle of the Bulge veterans group in memory of his brother Joe, who fought and survived that campaign.
Ciquero said that he is deeply pained by the negative reception Vietnam veterans got when they returned from the unpopular war.
“My heart goes out to them. I’ve attended their meetings for three years. People spit on them, they called them baby-killers,” Ciquero said. “I started to feel some of the pain they were feeling, and talking with their veterans about joining forces with the older veterans. What we did was the results of that conversation.”
One of the Battle of the Bulge veterans who shared his story with the Vietnam veterans in attendance was Ted Poluch, 90, one of two living survivors of the Malmedy Massacre, which occurred in Belgium during the Battle of the Bulge.
Poluch, of South Philly, was part of a caravan headed to join Patton’s Third Army at Battle of the Bulge that was surprised by German tanks. Outnumbered and outgunned, the U.S. caravan surrendered – but the German SS troopers shot every soldier, killing an estimated 80 Americans. Poluch survived by hiding in piles of the dead and running when the Germans weren’t looking.
“These guys are pieces of history,” Uchniat said.
Vietnam veterans had a very different experience from the WWII veterans, Uchniat told the Battle of the Bulge veterans as he thanked them for inviting them to join this ceremony.
“You were in the cold; we were in the hot. You were there for the duration; we were there for one year. You came from a united country; our country was divided. It was the time of sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and the Civil Rights movement,” Uchniat said.
“But we all served our country.” ••
Reporter Sam Newhouse can be reached at 215-354-3124 or firstname.lastname@example.org