WWII vets meet with generation of Vietnam vets

Passing the torch: Mem­bers of Vi­et­nam Vet­er­ans Liberty Bell Chapter 266, and Vi­et­nam Vet­er­ans Chapter 899 in Bor­dentown, N.J., get to­geth­er with vet­er­ans of the Battle of the Bulge, one of World War II’s most de­cis­ive en­gage­ments. Their meet­ing was held o

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 sne­w­house@bsmphilly.com

You can reach at snewhouse@bsmphilly.com.

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