Honored vet looks back
WELLSBURG – As he was presented the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park Foundation’s Veteran of the Year award, World War II veteran Bill Schwertfeger said it was tough for him to relate the many aspects of his military experience in one short acceptance speech.
But he briefly touched on many of them as he spoke to those attending the group’s annual dinner dance Saturday at the Wellsburg Banquet Hall.
“There are a lot of faces to combat. It’s scary, it’s boring, it’s cold and it’s red. I can’t say too much about that,” said Schwertfeger, alluding to the death of a fellow soldier and West Virginian, Henry Smelts, from sniper fire.
The 90-year-old Schwertfeger admitted that while serving the Army in efforts to free Italy of Nazi forces, he was more than a little scared and homesick, though he had enlisted eagerly, just a few months after his high school graduation.
He recalled observing B-52 bomber planes destroy a former monastery used as a mountaintop base by German troops while serving in the Battle of Monte Cassino and a barrage of attacks from infantry, tanks and airplanes that led to the ultimate liberation of Rome.
But Schwertfeger also related the tediousness of marching through the country over snow-covered mountainous terrain and with Mother’s Day on his mind, the concern his mother must have experienced during his two-year absence.
“I’m sure she woke up in the morning and went to bed at night wondering if she was going to get that telegram from the War Department,” he said.
Schwertfeger also spoke of the peace walking the streets of his hometown of Follansbee on the morning he returned from the war.
Ryan Weld, the foundation’s president, said Schwertfeger was chosen for the honor both for his service in the military and to his community following the war.
He noted Schwertfeger received the Bronze Star for rescuing a fallen soldier and later served his community as both Follansbee councilman and commander of the Follansbee American Legion Post.
Schwertfeger also had a 32-year career in education, teaching at schools in Colliers, Hooverson Heights and Steubenville and serving as principal at Wintersville Elementary School and as instructional supervisor for the Jefferson County Board of Education.
Schwertfeger thanked foundation members for honoring him with the award, adding it couldn’t have been easy to select a recipient among deserving veterans submitted by community members.
Weld noted it was the first year the group invited nominations from the community and he and others were very pleased with the response.
Of Schwertfeger’s recognition, Weld said, ‘it’s great to honor one of America’s Greatest Generation who is from Brooke County.”
The Ohio Valley Veterans Memorial Squad also presented Schwertfeger a plaque – hand-made by Doug Lilly, the group’s leader – and delivered to him a salute, which he returned.
As guest speaker, U.S. Rep. David McKinley, R-Wheeling, praised Schwertfeger and others who volunteered to serve in World War II, then returned to work with others in developing such innovations as interstate highways and the space program.
McKinley said the U.S. must support its military veterans, both those serving abroad and those who have returned home.
He spoke out against cuts to the military, saying troops continue to work to root out Al-Qaeda forces in the Middle East while tyranny and terrorism arise in Egypt and Nigeria.
McKinley said government leaders also must ensure all veterans have access to government-supported medical services and receive help in finding jobs.
“We can’t do enough for our veterans. They make it so we can sleep at night,” he said.
In closing, Weld encouraged everyone to visit the Brooke County Veterans Memorial Park, which overlooks the paddle boat pond at Brooke Hills Park.
He noted among the park’s features is a granite wall bearing the names of 186 Brooke County veterans who died while serving in military conflicts and 27 who were prisoners of war. It was suggested by Joan Nicholson, aunt of Marine Cpl. Michael J. Smith Jr., who was killed in a skirmish in Iraq.
Weld also encouraged attendees to visit a mobile version of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial featuring the names of West Virginian veterans only when it comes to Wellsburg’s Central Park June 30-July 2.