CHESTER - World War II veteran and Bronze Star recipient Bill Schwertfeger signed up to fight for his country at the tender age of 18.
Schwertfeger, the keynote speaker at this year's "Meet The Heroes" event in Chester, personifies the courage and selflessness embodied by countless men and women throughout the years who, just like him, answered the call from their country. It was to honor the courage and sacrifice of America's veterans that a large crowd gathered Saturday at The Orchards at Foxcrest in Chester for the eighth annual "Meet Our Heroes" event.
The day of remembrance began with stirring patriotic tunes played by the 87th Cleveland Bag Pipe Band. Next came a tribute to those veterans who gave the ultimate sacrifice from the Tri-State Burial Group, who performed a traditional 21 gun salute. Topping off the opening ceremonies was Ian Allison and George Garner performing a moving rendition of taps.
Army veteran and keynote speaker at the “Meet the Heroes” event, Bill Schwertfeger presents Army veteran Carl Mooney with a plaque thanking him for his service. The Orchards at Foxcrest handed out 19 such plaques to veterans from many branches of the armed forces during the event Saturday in Chester. (Photo by Devin Bezeredi)
Orchards at Foxcrest CEO Scott Fox then took the stage to express his gratitude for all those who served and for being able to get to know some veterans through The Orchards at Foxcrest.
"It is such an honor for The Orchards at Foxcrest to be able to put this event on for all our veterans and community members," said Fox. "Our veterans are truly our heroes, and deserve to honored in such a spectacular way."
Fox thanked the Chester VFW, The Chester American Legion, the City of Chester, The Oak Glen Girls Basketball team and the Oak Glen National Honor Society for helping The Orchards of Foxcrest make the event possible.
With the help of Schwertfeger, Fox presented 19 veterans, representing many different branches of the military, with commemorative plaques thanking them for their service.
Schwertfeger then took to the stage to share his experiences as an Army Sergeant serving from 1943-1945 in Casablanca, Morocco, and throughout Italy in World War II. The 90-year-old Follansbee native said it was a pleasure to return to Chester where he had made many memories as boy at Rock Springs Park.
"That was a wonderful time in my life," said Schwertfeger.
Schwertfeger, a retired teacher, said his purpose as keynote speaker was to share his experiences as a soldier in hopes that others may learn of the sacrifices made by him and countless other veterans like him. He told the crowd his journey took him from being a high school athlete at Follansbee High School, to being a soldier half way across the world on the battlefields of Europe, and back again in two-and-a-half years.
"If I had to give my story a title, I believe I would name it 'From the football field to the battle field and back,'" said Schwertfeger.
He explained that three months before his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Army. He said that during World War II it was not uncommon for high school seniors who had earned the credits needed for graduation to sign up for the war. The next months Schwertfeger spent building camaraderie with his fellow soldiers, who he described as a "mix of men and boys," and learning how to be an infantryman at camps across the country.
Soon after his training, he was on his way to Northern Africa by boat. However, even this voyage across the Atlantic was not easy. Schwertfeger describes himself as being sea sick nearly the entire voyage, but worse still was the sense of homesickness.
"Not only was I sea sick, I was home sick and love sick," said Schwertfeger. "If that's not enough to make a guy sick, I don't know what is."
From Northern Africa, Schwertfeger was sent into combat in Italy against a formidable Nazi army. As part of a machine gun platoon, he fought in combat operations in Monte Cassino, the Anzio beachhead and the liberation of Rome.
"As General Patton once said, it was 'just slugging it out,'" said Schwertfeger.
He said, aside from the fierce fighting, one of the worst parts of being in combat was fighting the elements and sleeping outside. He noted that dealing with the elements only added to soldiers longing for home.
"Being shot at is, of course, pretty bad but fighting the elements was also bad and that home sickness never left me," said Schwertfeger.
He asked the crowd to remember that, in addition to risking their lives, all soldiers suffer being away from their homes and families.
Schwertfeger said he cherishes the memory of he and his fellow soldiers jubilation upon returning home. He recalls the surreal feeling of walking the peaceful streets of Follansbee upon his return. He told the audience that all servicemen and women deserve to enjoy the euphoric feeling of coming home.
"To fall asleep in the neighborhood where I grew up - talk about a good feeling," said Schwertfeger.
Schwertfeger closed his speech by saying that he hopes everyone will bear in mind the sacrifices made by current and former military members. He ended with the poem "A Soldier Died Today" by A. Lawrence Vaincourt, which in part reads: "He was just a common soldier and his ranks are growing thin, But his presence should remind us we may need his like again."
Echoing Schwertfeger's sentiments was Pastor Steve Forsythe who lead the crowd in prayer before lunch was served. He also reminded the audience to be thankful to those who "have afforded us the freedoms that are so easy to take for granted as a nation."
During lunch, The Liberty Belles, a USO troupe from New York City, provided guests with rousing song and dance routines. Clad in vintage-style USO outfits, The Liberty Belles performed World War II era tunes such as "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy" and "Don't Sit Under The Apple Tree."