OSWEGO, NY – The Greatest Generation continues to enlighten and educate in Oswego.
Recently, The Torch of Freedom, a roundtable discussion was held to celebrate the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe (VE) Day. Dozens of students received a history lesson, from those who lived it, just in time for Memorial Day.
The event, featuring veterans, many of whom saw action in World War II, was held in Oswego High School’s Ralph Faust Theatre.
Among the featured speakers were: John Canale, World War II veteran, Oswego Veteran of the Year 2014; Len Maniccia, World War II veteran, the 2015 Oswego Veteran of the Year; Marlene Knopp, World War II veteran, Oswego Veteran of the Year 2010; Jim Sullivan, World War II veteran, Oswego Veteran of the Year 2013; Fred Crisafulli, United States Navy veteran, Oswego Veteran of the Year 2006; Vietnam era veteran Dan Ferens, who will told of his father’s time in Stalag 17; George DeMass, Oswego Town Historian, who talked about Safe Haven, the Holocaust Museum; and Anthony Leotta who served following World War II.
Angelica Olcott was unable to attend the program.
However, she came to the theatre early to gather autographs from the attending veterans and chat with them for a few minutes.
“This is a pretty impressive opportunity to be able to share the experiences of these gentlemen and lady,” Principal Erin Noto said. “So when your parents ask you when you get home from school today, ‘what did you do in school today?’ Please, don’t say, ‘Nothing.’ Because this is something you should be able to talk about with your parents.”
DeMass, Oswego Town Historian, talked about Oswego’s connection to the Holocaust.
“You young ladies and gentlemen, you are the last generation that are going to be able to hear about the events of World War II from the primary sources, the men and women who were there.” he told the students.
Oswego has a connection, “a very vital connection” to the Holocaust, he said.
“It’s probably one of the best kept secrets in American history. And, until a decade ago, probably one of the best kept secrets in Oswego. The Safe Haven Holocaust Museum Refugee Shelter is located right here in Oswego, at Fort Ontario.”
Asking for a show of hands, he noted that “not enough” had visited the museum; many more had been to the fort, however.
The Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was the only site in the United States where Holocaust survivors were provided a “safe haven” during World War II.
Ferens spoke about his father’s (Walter) time in Stalag 17 as a prisoner of war during World War II. The elder Ferens passed away at the age of 85 in 2002. He felt that he’d only live to be 60, his son pointed out.
He was a gunner on a B-17 bomber. On their seventh mission, they were shot down and crash landed behind enemy lines. Everyone was injured in some way. They all survived, but they were captured immediately.
“My dad was in Stalag 17 for a year and a half. That doesn’t seem like a long time. But, remember this is a prison camp,” Dan said. “And, it’s longer if you consider what they had to go through.”
The Germans treated their prisoners relatively well, “relatively” because prisoners are never treated well – but compared to how the Japanese treated their prisoners, it was a lot better. The Japanese treated surrender as cowardliness so they treated their prisoners as second class citizens.
Stalag 17 was run by the German air force. There was some mutual respect between the two side, Ferens explained.
He offered an example of the prisoners’ weekly menu (from a holiday week – so probably one of the better menus)
They had things like hot water, dried cabbage and turnips.
In the 1980s, his father finally started talking more about his experiences. And then, late in the 1990s, he visited area schools and lectured about his lifetime. His son is carrying on that legacy.
Maniccia, a World War II veteran succinctly described the war as “horrible.”
Sullivan, a World War II veteran quipped that if he had flunked another course in high school, “I’d have missed World War II.”
He told of his recent experiences with Honor Flight, and visiting Washington DC with many other veterans.
“It was quite an experience. If you’re interested in seeing what we did they are putting something together on Honor Flight’s Facebook page,” he said.
Marlene Knopp, Oswego’s Veteran of the Year for 2010, said she came from a military family.
She related a story about her brother, Frank, a Marine who saw action in the Pacific Theater during World War II.
A Japanese solider jumped into his foxhole and tried to cut his throat. But her brother kept his chin against his chest and the enemy wound up cutting his face from ear to ear, she said.
“Frank came out of the foxhole alive. The Japanese soldier did not,” she told the students. “Of all his military battles, Frank would not discuss anything. The only thing he said about that day was that he learned to fight dirty – and he also learned to pray.”
“I just want to point out that freedom isn’t something that’s given out. I think you’re learning today that what these guys say and what I say – your freedom is not something that’s given to you. It’s something that’s earned,” Knopp added.
Crisafulli displayed a photo of his mother. She was the first Gold Star Mother in Oswego during World War II. Crisafulli’s brother, Charles, died trying to save another sailor during a ship wreck in the North Atlantic.
“Unfortunately, I was too young to serve in World War II as part of the Greatest Generation,” Leotta said. “I applaud you gentlemen here today for your service.”
The total causalities of World War II were 60 million, Leotta said. There were 25 million in Russia alone, he added.
“We lost (civilians included) 450,000,” he said, adding that “the greatest generation continues in Oswego.”
General John Logan, commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, officially proclaimed Memorial Day on May 5, 1868.
The day was first observed on May 30, 1868 with flowers being placed on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers at Arlington National Cemetery.
By 1890, all northern states were recognizing the day.
But it would take until the end of World War I, when the holiday changed from honoring those who died fighting any war – not just the civil war, for the south to acknowledge the holiday.