Woody Versaw was a first-semester student at Franklin and Marshall College hitchhiking home to see his girlfriend for her birthday when he heard the news about Pearl Harbor on a truck radio. Like many young men at that time, he dropped out of college and tried to enlist in the navy. Because he wore glasses, he was turned down. The rejection made him angry. He was young and he wanted to go to war and fight for his country.
After working at a machine shop grinding artillery shells in Springdale, Pennsylvania, Woody took the military physical again and passed. This time, the army accepted him and he was put into an engineering division. His training was at Ft. Meade and then Camp Ethan Allen, Vermont. His military work involved driving a truck, building roads, and working in two-man crews to provide water systems. It’s very important work to provide water for an army, Woody recalls, it’s more important than one might think.
In Luxembourg he did see combat and death. Once his command car was hit by shrapnel, but he was fortunate not to be hit. The images of war will stay with him forever, he admits.
Throughout Europe his unit moved quite a bit and he was in Bastogne, then Jena and Apollo, Germany and after the war he was in Antwerp at Camp Top Hat. There we worked as an electrician, but he also had the peculiar job of interviewing enlisted men who were waiting to go home. He needed to know what they were happy about and what complaints they had. When it was time for Woody to return home, his lieutenant asked him to stay in the army, but Woody chose to come home. He had seen enough and he was ready to get back to his family.
He returned to the states on the USS Wasp (CV-18) and had a wonderful reunion in New York with his parents and his wife. Woody fondly recalls how his wife lived with his parents while he was in the army. She worked while Woody was away, and he found out later that she had saved his military paychecks and did not spend them. That helped a lot later when they were establishing themselves after the war.
The money helped when Woody and his brother-in-law started a gas station, but then he received a letter from Franklin and Marshall inviting him back to college where he could use his GI benefits to finish his degree.
Created by the VBC in partnership with and courtesy of Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Initiative Archive (Farkas Collection)
We frequently get the opportunity to record our veterans’ interviews at the venerable Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. Situated in the busy Oakland section of Pittsburgh, the great Hall is a central landmark that sits high above 5th Avenue, like a citadel.
Yet, despite its urban location for a hundred years, many residents still don’t know much about the museum. As if hidden in plain sight, Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum is the nation’s only military museum dedicated to honoring the men and women of all branches of service.
That mission complements our own commitment to preserve the stories of local veterans from all branches of service and eras—including the often forgotten Cold War. Of course, because time is running out we prioritize working with the WW II generation, as was the case during this recording session; seven of the eight veterans we interviewed served during WW II.
Over two days (November 21st and 22nd) we welcomed our participating veterans to the museum’s grand Gettysburg Room, where we set up our mobile recording studio. It’s a popular recording space, often seen in local documentaries; the History Channel likes to record here as well.
Again this year the recording project was joined by the 354th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment, a communications unit in the Army Reserve located in Coraopolis, Pa. The mission of the 354th is to publicize the Army and its history.
“In addition to our own interviews,” said director Todd DePastino of the Veterans Breakfast Club, “each year we arrange for the 354th MPAD to interview Army veterans. It’s a wonderful experience for our WW II vets to talk with today’s uniformed soldiers, and I think the Reservists feel the same way.”
We were also joined by Nick Wells of Mt. Lebanon, an active member of our volunteer creative team. Nick was instrumental in helping us greet veterans and prepare them for their interviews.
KEYWORDS: 159TH ENGINEER COMBAT BATTALION; ANTWERP, BELGIUM; APOLLO, GERMANY; BASTOGNE, BELGIUM; CAMP ETHAN ALLEN, VT; CAMP TOPHAT, BELGIUM; DOTHAN, AL; FRANCE; FRANKLIN AND MARSHALL COLLEGE; FT. INDIANTOWN GAP, PA; FT. MEADE, MD; JENA, GERMANY; MURFREESBORO, TN; SPRINGDALE, PA; USS WASP (CV-18)