Some of them, the World War II veterans in their late 80s and beyond, shuffled into the Fullerton fire hall with the help of canes. The Korean War vets were somewhat better off, and those who served in the Vietnam War looked hardy.
They are the men who have been awarded the Purple Heart, the nation’s oldest military decoration. Conferred on combat-wounded veterans, it is “a true badge of courage, and every breast that wears it can beat with pride,” Gen. Douglas MacArthur once said.
Every March, the Military Order of the Purple Heart, Lehigh Valley Chapter 190, holds a banquet to celebrate the birthday of George Washington, who created the medal on Aug. 7, 1782. The banquet on Saturday was the chapter’s 27th. I’ve been going since 2003, and it struck me how the crowd gets thinner each year. A hall that used to be packed was now half empty. The older vets are passing or too frail to attend, while the younger ones aren’t participating.
This chapter is the group that for years has provided coffee and doughnuts at the Allentown Veterans Affairs Clinic on Mondays.
Some of the talk on Saturday was about Frank Buckles, the last known American veteran of World War I, who died earlier in the week at his home in West Virginia at the age of 110. That war is now fully gone from modern memory, a reality not lost on the aging warriors as they remembered their comrades who died in the past year — Frank Dergosits, Gene Salay, Jayme Gangaway, Russell Stocker and Graydon Woods.
Like all such events, this one brimmed with patriotic ceremony. Commander Mike Mescavage and Finance Officer Chuck Jackson presided. Girls from Dieruff High School’s Air Force Junior ROTC smartly presented the colors. All stood for the Pledge of Allegiance, the singing of “God Bless America,” and later on, the playing of taps.
Politicians had their say. Retired Air Force Maj. Nathan Kline, Allentown’s liaison to the military, read a proclamation on behalf of Mayor Ed Pawlowski. State Sen. Pat Browne, who stayed throughout, and Rep. Doug Reichley saluted the vets for their sacrifice.
Member Charles “Bud” Dillon, a 62-year-old former Philadelphia highway patrolman, received a national law enforcement citation from the Purple Heart organization “in recognition for resolute action and wounds received in the performance of duties on June 1, 1988,” when he exchanged gunfire with a car thief.
Surveying the tables where some 60 guests sat, I thought of all the Purple Heart vets from this group I had done stories on. They include Salay and Woods, Ernest “Whitey” Eschbach, Charles Kowalchuk, Charles Toth and 92-year-old Joseph Motil, who was at the banquet. You can read their stories on The Morning Call’s website at http://www.mcall.com/news/local/warstories/.
The banquet’s keynote speaker, Air Force Master Sgt. Willard E. Jones, offered hope to the passing generation that there will be capable leaders in the future. Since 1992, he has overseen Dieruff’s award-winning Junior ROTC program.