In 2010, I had the Honor and Privilege to accompany my grandfather, Francis Chesko, aka Pop Pop, to a Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge Reunion. That year it was held in Columbia, South Carolina.
The adventure started when I picked up my Pop in Mahanoy City Pennsylvania, a small Appalachian Coal Mining Town. My Grandfathers' story is like many of those from that Generation. A child of the Great Depression and then Volunteering to go off and Fight for his Country. A time when they knew who the Enemy was, Adolf Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.
We left early in the morning with fog lying over the sleepy town. Driving up into the Appalachians heading south the drive to South Carolina would be many hours. Pop used to tell me stories of the War when I was a child, now I wanted to know what came before. Speaking of his old dog Shep and life growing up. His family home with no running water, or electricity, using an outhouse, keeping your family warm with coal, and your brothers and sisters close. Things we take as the basics they did without. Yet as my Great Aunt Helen says they were "Happy."
He looks forward to these Reunions, trying to attend as many as possible. Over the years he and his wife Rose, my Nana, whom he married after the War, would go to these together. They were the Cutest Couple Holding Hands like a couple of High School Sweethearts. Alas my Nana could not make this trip so I got to go, and I could not wait.
The drive to South Carolina passed with stories of his whole life before and after not just of the War.
When we arrived there was a "Meet and Greet" and I watched as he renewed friendships with his fellow Veterans. Some of these Veterans, like he, went to these Reunions as often as they could. It was indeed a privilege to just sit back and listen to these Heroes talk of past deeds so humbly.
The Veterans were honored over the next five days in many ways. Including a a Parade through the Streets of Columbia in vintage WWII Vehicles and a Tribute at the USC vs Ole Miss game.
There was a Ceremony at the Fort Jackson Cemetery where there was a Wreath laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, quite solemn.
They went on a Tour of Fort Jackson where they had lunch with the Recruits.
Probably my favorite time was the "Meet and Greet" with the Public. The Veterans sat around with memorabilia, souvenirs and maps discussing their experiences. The peoples' ranging from children of eight to eighty.
They had a Reception at the National Guard Armory that included a Vintage USO Tour Show. Including a Tommy Dorsey, Big Band Style Orchestra. I think this was the Veterans favorite watching the smiles, laughter and yes even some dancing.
The Closing Banquet was truly special. Though it started with the Audio Visual not working to play the National Anthem. Yet, as the Color Guard came in, you heard, without fail, over two hundred voices, most of them Veterans in their late eighties and early nineties, singing the National Anthem. I still get goosebumps thinking about it. After dinner and speeches from the Ambassadors of both Belgium and Luxemborg they presented a Slideshow with images of the Battle of the Bulge. As the Veterans were watching the presentation the expressions on their faces changed from joy over the last few days memories to expressions of sadness.
The final Goodbyes amongs the Veterans included promises to see one another at the next Reunion. Knowing each one would have a few less Attendees, this was both heart warming and heart wrenching at the same time.
This is a memory I will always cherish.
The photographs I hope can share their story and to Thank the Veterans of all Conflicts.
Peace and Light, Patrick Hayes