Memorial Day brings honor to vets

The warm, sunny weather was a stark contrast to the memory Altoona veteran Frank Basciani had of his time retrieving German tanks as the Allies pushed through Europe during World War II.

“I froze my feet there,” said the 98-year-old Basciani, flashing a broad smile as he sat in his wheelchair along 11th Avenue Monday, waiting for the start of the annual Memorial Day Parade through downtown Altoona.

Basciani’s son, John Basciani, 62, – himself a veteran of Vietnam – said his father, whose job with a tank battalion meant bringing back enemy tanks so Allied Forces could study them, suffered severe frostbite in the war. While it was something that caused him problems with his feet throughout his life, the elder Basciani, now on oxygen and using a wheelchair, tries to make it to the parades, no matter what the weather.

“He’s made it to almost every one of these parades,” said John Basciani. “In November, he sat in the snow.”

World War II vet Vic Raia pointed out during the Blair County War Veterans Council Memorial Day program following the parade that there are now less than one million World War II veterans remaining, and that number goes down daily.

“Pretty soon, we’ll have no more World War II veterans,” Raia said from the podium on 11th Avenue at the Robert Laws Memorial Plaza, where an almost forgotten memorial to one of Altoona’s sons killed at Pearl Harbor was dedicated.

Ensign George A. Wolf Jr. was killed Dec. 7, 1941, and in 1978, a memorial designed by Joe Servello titled “GI Joe” was placed at the Laws Memorial, only to be moved sometime later to an obscure spot away from other monuments.

Command Sgt. Major Chad Pysher, retired, who served with the Pennsylvania National Guard’s 28th Infantry Division, said through donations and volunteers, the Wolf memorial was cleaned, repainted and moved.

With bagpipes playing “Amazing Grace,” the focus shifted to the rear of the park and the Wolf memorial’s new home among the other monuments honoring the fallen of America’s conflicts.

BCWVC Commander Floyd “Duke” Dutton said a plaque on the base of the Wolf Memorial was discovered when workers were cleaning up near the monument’s former spot, up from the plaza on the hill, near the alley.

“We decided to clean it up and bring it down to the (Laws) Memorial, where it belongs,” Dutton said, adding through the BCWVC, the National Guard Association and a lot of volunteers, the move and restoration was made possible.

Monday’s crowd for the Memorial Day service is one of the biggest in recent years, Dutton said.

Pysher said following the ceremony Memorial Day is important, especially to remind the younger generation, of the sacrifice regular citizens have made while donning the uniforms of the U.S. military.

“These were the butchers, the bakers and the candlestick makers, but never had a chance to come home and live their lives,” Pysher said.

Representative Jerry Stern, R-81, was honored by the BCWVC for his work as a legislator for 22 years, including 14 years on the Veterans Affairs committee.

Stern said we owe those who served a debt of gratitude for sacrificing their lives while standing watch over America, from the beaches of Normandy 70 years ago to the more than 7,000 who gave their lives in the “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“We thank them for devoting their lives and answering the call of duty, those who trained, served and put their lives in jeopardy every single day,” Stern said.