With the Allied World War II victory secured in Europe, combat medic Bill Winowich was getting ready for training to head to the Pacific.
In spring 1945, he was entering a medical station to have a new photograph taken when he noticed a French Red Cross worker at the building.
“Bill leaned over and gave her a kiss on the cheek, and she punched him in the face and said, ‘You pig,’” Mt. Lebanon resident Todd DePastino said. “They were married four months later. They will celebrate their 74th anniversary next month.”
Jackie Winowich accompanied her husband to the annual gala of the Veterans Breakfast Club, which DePastino founded, held Aug. 23 at the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square.
The theme of this year’s event was “Veteran Voices of the Year: Veterans of World War II,” with 54 Western Pennsylvania residents honored for their service three-quarters of a century ago.
DePastino, executive director of the nonprofit organization that encourages veterans to tell their stories, shared information about each of the honorees, with the Winowiches’ first meeting receiving an especially good response.
With the war ending 74 years ago, the women and men receiving honors all are in their mid-90s or older, with U.S. Army Air Corps veteran Jim Ross topping the list at 102.
“Jim was drafted before Pearl Harbor. At the time, with the one-year draft, the song was ‘Goodbye, Dear, I’ll Be Home in a Year.’ And he was still looking forward to get home when Pearl Harbor happened and he knew he’d be in,” DePastino said. “He didn’t come home until 1946.”
DePastino recalled hearing Ross share his experiences during a Veterans Breakfast Club gathering.
“Jim talked very movingly about how hard it was to come home after being away for so long. He said, ‘You wonder if anybody’s going to remember you,’” DePastino said. “And I just thought about our young vets who face that prospect, of reintegration, coming back home after being overseas.”
Chairing the committee that organized the gala was Sharon George, whose nonprofit Sha’nini George Foundation served as event sponsor. Part of the mission of the organization – named for her great-grandmother, a survivor of the Titanic voyage – is to recognize and honor military veterans and personnel.
“I am particularly pleased to host all of the World War II vets here today. You are the most beloved generation, and rightly so. You are the most respected generation, and rightly so. You grew up in a Depression, and then you went off to war – not just any war, a world war – and you saved the world,” George said. “As such, each of you has a fascinating story to tell, and that is where the VBC comes in.
“And in fact,” she continued, “I know some of your stories because of the VBC: first, Julia Parsons, who had a top-secret job during World War II decoding the infamous Germany enigma encryption machine. How cool is that?
“Second, because of the VBC, I know Henry Parham, who was a member of the only African-American unit to touch down on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He is today the only living African-American who participated in D-Day.”
Gala guests also had the opportunity learn more about the World War II veterans through the screening of a video, compiled by DePastino’s daughter Ellie, containing excerpts of interviews captured for posterity.
Todd DePastino spoke about the 2008 origins of the Veterans Breakfast Club with 30 South Hills residents, including Pearl Harbor survivor Floyd Laughlin, who was 96 when he died in 2013.
“I remember him saying to me at one of those early events that he remembered Decoration Day as a child and Decoration Day parades,” DePastino said.
“He said, ‘I remember seeing the Civil War veterans marching in it, and they seemed so old. I was just in awe of them, of what they had experienced and what they had seen and done.’
“And then Floyd turned to me with a tear in his eye, and he said, ‘And now I’m one of those old veterans.’”
The 2019 gala was full of folks who will have similar memories of meeting and learning about women and men who served in World War II.
“We feel the privilege of being in your presence, of kind of reaching back through history,” DePastino said. “We also reach out to each other, I think, as citizens and kind of remind ourselves what our country is all about, the country you served and gave so much to. And so we just are privileged to be in your company tonight.”
In the South Hills, the Veterans Breakfast Club has events scheduled from 8:30 to 10:30 a.m. on Sept. 24, Nov. 26 and Dec. 21 at Christ United Methodist Church, 44 Highland Road, Bethel Park. RSVP for all events unless otherwise noted to 412-623-9029 or email@example.com.
Also, a Veterans Breakfast Club panel discussion – “Veterans Speak Out: Were the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan Worth Fighting?” – is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 3 at Peters Township Public Library.
For more information, visit vbcpgh.org.