Scrapbook chronicles wartime heroes
When Edmund J. Minkus was growing up in West Newton during World War II, he kept track of area soldiers, sailors and airmen fighting around the world by cutting out Times-Sun stories about them – stories of brothers serving their country in battles in the South Pacific and Europe, medals won, captured soldiers, the ones missing in action and sadly, too many stories about those killed in action.
Minkus, who joined the Army for a two-year stint after graduating from West Newton High School in 1946, said he doesn’t recall why he started cutting the stories from the copies of the Times-Sun that his parents received at the family home on North Third Street. He did not have an older brother who served in the war, nor did his father serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I.
With Veterans Day to be commemorated on Tuesday, the yellowed scrapbook with about 80 pages of stories and photos of members of the Armed Forces serving their country some 70 years ago shows how the region responded to the country’s call to defend freedom and defeat fascism.
“A book like that brings back a lot of memories,” said Minkus, a South Huntingdon resident who retired from the U.S. Postal Service in West Newton in June 1988.
Minkus said he used to participate in Veterans Day ceremonies in his younger days, but now, at age 86, that’s no longer possible.
Minkus was just 13 when the United States was plunged into the world war in response to Japan’s sneak attack on the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor. He began pasting photos and stories of military personnel the following year. One of the first was a photo of the West Newton Honor Roll on East Main Street, which contained 450 names of service members just a year after the U.S. entered the war.
“Everyone knew someone who was in the war,” Minkus said.
A West Newton soldier was at Pearl Harbor when the war began for the United States. Pvt. Charles O. Backstrom was awarded a Purple Heart for the wounds he received from a Japanese plane during fighting at Hickam Field in Hawaii. The story says Backstrom was moving oil and gas tanks to prevent an explosion.
Another medal winner, gunner Sgt. Eugene Beistel, 22, of West Newton, was awarded a Silver Star for gallantry during a bombing raid of a Japanese airport in New Guinea. His plane shot down seven Japanese fighter planes in the battle.
Among the stories he pasted into the 80-some pages of the scrapbook was one about the Tarr brothers – Philip, Robert, Warren and George. Private George Tarr would be killed later in the war. Minkus cut out other stories about brothers serving, including the four Feldbaums – Mel, Glenn, Jack and William. The Kuchar brothers – Joseph, John and Michael – served in the Army, Navy and Army Air Force.
Pvt. Samuel Yannacci, 19, of Yukon, and his brother, Sgt. Jack Yannacci, were fighting in France in 1944 when Jack wrote home to his mother, but could not tell her the terrible news that Samuel had been killed, according to one story.
Minkus remembers seeing many homes with small flags in their windows – indicating to all who saw them that the family had a member serving in the military.
“Some homes had four flags, some had three. Some had gold stars,” indicating that a member of that family made the ultimate sacrifice for their country, Minkus said.
The Lohigh family suffered the loss of two sons – John Lohigh was killed in Luxembourg on Jan. 17, 1945, possibly during the Battle of the Bulge, and his brother, Pvt. Michael Lohigh, was killed on March 11 while fighting with the Seventh Army in Germany. The Germans surrendered to end the war in Europe, less than two months after Michael Lohigh was killed.
One of the lucky ones was Seaman Leonard Bowers Jr. of Lowber who escaped the doomed American stronghold on Corregiodor Island, which fell to the Japanese when they invaded the Philippines in April 1942. Bower escaped the island fortress, which protected the harbor of Manila, in a packed submarine that went on a 28-day journey to Australia. They narrowly missed being sunk by Japanese destroyers, which dropped 16 depth charges in an effort to destroy the sub.
Minkus did not just clip stories about men. One story mentioned that Ann Urick of Smithton was joining the Women’s Army Air Corps. She had three brothers in the service – Pete, Nick and John.
And it was not only men from the area who died in the conflict. Lt. Barbara Young, a member of the Women’s Army Air Corps, was killed in plane crash near Shreveport, La. The paper said she was the first WAAC from Westmoreland County to die while on active duty.
Minkus also kept a remembrance of the end of the war, with a Times-Sun front page story bearing the headline, “Community Goes Wild Celebrating War’s End.”
The story said that “West Newton went all out celebrating the end of World War II. From 7 p.m. (Tuesday) until dawn Wednesday, the streets were filled with joyous crowds, the word for which they had been waiting for nearly four years.”
“The night of Aug. 14, 1945, was one that residents old and young will never forget,” the Times-Sun wrote, and Minkus said he was one who still remembered that celebration.
Joe Napsha is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 724-836-5252.