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Harr, Sitman served with honor

The Sunday Column

Armed Forces Day is observed in two weeks, on May 15.

This day is set aside to honor the contributions of millions of American men and women who have served honorably in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and Coast Guard since 1776. It consolidated the individual birthdates of each individual service and is not to be confused with Memorial Day and Veterans Day, which also honor military service.

In the past 80 years, two U.S. Army veterans from Blair County distinguished themselves “above and beyond the call of duty” and earned Medals of Honor during World War II and the Korean War. One, Harry Harr, was from Claysburg and the other, William Sitman, was from Bellwood. Coincidentally, they both were cited for bravery for saving the lives of fellow soldiers.

There was little in his youth to identify Harry Harr as an emerging hero. He was born at Pinecroft but he spent his early years living near East Freedom and was educated in the Claysburg school system. He married Mary Berkheimer of Hollidaysburg in 1940 and they had one child, a son, also named Harry. He was employed at Altoona’a Pennsylvania Railroad car shops when WWII began.

Drafted into the army in late 1942, Harr was on the Philippine island of Mindanao in early 1945 when he came face-to-face with fanatic Japanese defenders. The Japanese closed in on Harr’s machine gun emplacement, hurling hand grenades, one of which exploded under his gun, putting it out of action.

Another grenade landed squarely in the emplacement. Quickly realizing he could not safely throw the unexploded missile from the crowded position, Cpl. Harr unhesitatingly covered it with his body, to smother the blast. His supremely courageous act saved four of his comrades and enabled them to continue their mission.

Harr’s body was returned home and buried with full military ceremony at Alto Reste Cemetery near Altoona. The headstone lists him as a Medal of Honor recipient. The reserve center in Altoona was named in his honor. His widow, who remarried, was later buried beside him.

William S. Sitman was born on Aug. 9, 1923, in Bellwood, son of Harry and Esther (Schroder) Sitman. He was a three-letter athlete at Bellwood-Antis High School, graduating in 1941.

He married Sarah Emily Covert the following year, and they had one child, a daughter, Joann. He was called to duty during WWII. At war’s end Sitman resumed his work with the PRR.

When hostilities erupted in Korea in 1950, Sitman reentered the army and was deployed there. While serving as a machine gunner, his squad came under attack and a grenade was lobbed into their position. His Medal of Honor citation states that “Sergeant First Class Sitman, fully aware of the odds against him, selflessly threw himself on it, absorbing the full force of the explosion with his body.”

SFC Sitman was 28 when he died. His body was returned to his family at 315 S. Second St. in Bellwood for a funeral service. He is buried in the Logan Valley Cemetery at Bellwood.

The details of Sitman’s heroism are preserved by the Bellwood Historical Society.

Cove historian James Wentz writes a monthly column for the Mirror.

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