- Associated Press - Saturday, May 16, 2015

ERIE, Pa. (AP) - John Pfister bent at the waist and sighed, his index finger tracing a circular gold-plated frame hanging in his Fairview Township home.

Encased in the frame are more than 20 medals, ribbons and pins he earned in the U.S. Army during World War II, among them the Purple Heart; a Silver Star Medal, for valor; five Bronze Star Medals for heroism, meritorious achievement or meritorious service in a combat zone; and a Combat Infantryman Badge.

Pfister, 97, entered combat on June 6, 1944, as a corporal with the 4th Infantry Division, 8th Regiment, Company H. He was landed on Utah Beach, hauling 80 pounds of ammunition and in charge of a group of machine guns during what we now know as D-Day.

The Allied invasion of the French coast that day ultimately led to victory over Germany and, 70 years ago today, to the celebration of Victory in Europe Day.

“Our nightmare was over,” said Joseph Morettini, 90, of Erie, who was a private in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division. “It was actually hard to believe.”

The estimate of worldwide deaths during the war is 85 million, according to the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. That includes 15 million battlefield deaths and 45 million civilian deaths.

It’s little wonder that veterans for years- sometimes the rest of their lives -tended not to speak about their service, even to family. Though Pfister’s medals are displayed in his living room today, for decades he did not talk about his war experience.

“It was intentional that I didn’t talk about it,” Pfister said. “I really just wanted to forget about it.”

It wasn’t until 1965 that he opened up, said one of Pfister’s three daughters, Barbara Miles, 64, of Fairview Township.

“His niece actually had to interview someone from World War II in high school. I was only about 14 or 15 then,” Miles said. “None of us had ever heard anything that ever happened in the war until then, and it was just eye-opening to hear what came out of his mouth. It boggled my mind.”

Pfister recalls the sound of bullets slicing past his head; horrifying screams from pilots of gliders shot down in the hedgerows of France; images of his time lying bloodied and wounded for more than 24 hours next to two dead American soldiers, wondering if aid ever would come.

Of the 50 men in Pfister’s original platoon, only three survived the war.

He withstood D-Day, and then was wounded in action in France.

He rejoined the company after a 30-day medical leave at an English hospital. His company was on the front lines of fighting throughout France and into Germany, including the Battle of Hürtgen Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

“Even after we listened to it the first time, I’m sure he didn’t tell us everything,” Miles said. “I think there are some things he just keeps to himself that we’ll never hear. They’re too bad.”

Andy Simkovitch, 90, of Lake City, was a U.S. Navy sailor aboard the tank landing ship USS L.S.T. 501. He didn’t talk about the war for more than 50 years.

“It wasn’t until the Erie Times-News came here and interviewed him that I heard everything. That was in 1996,” after the 50th anniversary of the end of the war, said his son, Glenn Simkovitch, 61, of Lake City.

“After that, I really pushed the issue and wanted to know everything he went through,” he said.

Andy Simkovitch transported troops to Utah and Omaha beaches on D-Day. After a short leave, his ship headed to the Pacific and saw combat in numerous battles, including at Okinawa.

Out of the 91,017 men recorded in the Erie County 1940 U.S. Census, 13,859 served overseas in World War II, according to an Erie Daily Times article from 1945. That means roughly 15 percent, or a little more than 1 out of every 7 of the county’s men, went to war.

Erie’s World War II veterans, the youngest of whom are around 87 years old, know they’re running out of time to share their experience and perspective.

“It’s important that people know about what went on over there and what happened,” said Joseph Steger, 88, of Erie, a U.S. Navy seaman who served aboard tank landing ship USS L.S.T. 1046. “Even some kids nowadays have no idea about World War II. They don’t know what we’re talking about.”

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, only 855,000 of the 16 million Americans who served in the war are alive today.

“We don’t have much time left. There’s really not many of us World War II veterans left,” said Arden Earll, 90, of Corry, a staff sergeant in the 29th Infantry Division, 116th Infantry Regiment, Company H. “Right now, we’re talking. … It’ll be 2019 when there’s no more of us left.”

And so some find opportunities that seem right to reveal some buried but never forgotten memories. About two dozen agreed to take part in the “Our Fight: Erie in World War II” online project that launched today at GoErie.com/ourfight.

Five of the veterans were interviewed for “Our Fight” while their children or grandchildren were present. After two of the interviews, relatives mentioned they’d heard something new- an expressed feeling, thought or detail that otherwise would have gone untold.

Though 70 years have passed, the lingering memories of World War II remain fresh, sometimes painfully so.

“I close my eyes, and I’m back there… and it’s been 70 years since,” Pfister said. “I still picture myself as that nervous kid, on that landing ship, with all that gear… not knowing what would happen to us.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1zUrah1

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Information from: Erie Times-News, https://www.goerie.com


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