Tony DeStefano quit school to help support his family, then volunteered for the U.S. Army Air Corps four months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the catalyst for the United States’ entry into World War II. Unlike his big brother, Sam, he made it back alive.
At Immaculate Conception Cemetery in South Strabane Township, the DeStefano family plot bears the name of Pfc. Samuel DeStefano, killed in action June 17, 1943. Tony DeStefano said his brother died in Manila, the Philippines, volunteering for a mission because a fellow soldier fell ill.
“After I went to the service, I never (saw) him no more,” DeStefano mused. Nor could he obtain leave to console his family when they received word that Samuel was dead, although his body was never recovered.
It leads one to wonder if it’s because of Samuel that Tony DeStefano so honors military members. Asked about it, he said no, but regardless, DeStefano has taken on the task of adorning the graves of veterans at Immaculate Conception Cemetery, Locust Avenue, with flags each Memorial Day for the past 33 years. But at 93, he’s not as spry as he used to be, so he’s looking for someone to take up where he’s leaving off.
“My helpers have mostly passed away,” he said in an interview at his Washington home. In 2000 he couldn’t find a helper, so he was toiling alone in the cemetery when a passerby offered assistance. He identified himself as an ex-Marine, and he showed up the next day and the day after, until the two of them had placed all their flags on veterans’ graves. DeStefano is sorry he didn’t get the name of the man who volunteered his time.
“It’s just something I figured has to be done because they put their lives on the line for our country and they should be recognized in some way. Maybe they didn’t die in the war, they died of natural causes, but they served.
“I’m getting to the point that I’m having a hard time,” he explained. “It’s getting too much for me. You can’t believe what a hard time I have. I’d get down on my knee and I couldn’t get back up.”
John King, the adjutant at Edwin Scott Linton American Legion Post No. 175, Washington, where DeStefano is also a member, said, “Every honorably discharged veteran is entitled to a flag, yes. We get them from the county.” He had no idea DeStefano was 93.
“He’s always happy-go-lucky,” King said of his fellow serviceman, noting that Immaculate Conception Cemetery takes 500 to 600 flags. “This past Memorial Day he told me he wasn’t going to be able to do it. He told me he just couldn’t climb the hills anymore.”
Flags with markers noting the deceased’s military era are a common sight, but they don’t get there by themselves. King said his post places about 5,500 flags at Washington Cemetery alone, getting volunteers from schools, the local DeMolay and Rainbow chapters and Young Marines.
At that age, Tony DeStefano had quit Washington High School. “I had to leave because we were poor,” he recalled. “Back in (those) days, they wanted you go to work, but I got to 11th grade.”
He drove a truck for McCollum Transport Co., West Maiden Street, Washington, delivering furniture but never traveling farther away from home than Canonsburg. War raged in both Europe and Asia. Young DeStefano in August 1941 believed it was only a matter of time before the United States was drawn into the conflict, so he signed up for military service in hopes of landing in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
In signing up, he made his first trip to the big city, Pittsburgh, and, in the branch of service of his choice, learned how to maintain aircraft engines at Chanute Field, Rantoul, Ill.
DeStefano was just exiting church the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when he learned of the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“I’ll never forget it. We were just a bunch of young boys. Something we thought might happen and it did happen,” DeStefano said. “We took it with a pretty good grain of salt.”
The difference in the atmosphere at the air base changed almost immediately, with a tightening of security, everyone on alert and a restriction of personal freedom.
“They cut our program down from a two-year program to a one-year program,” DeStefano. It seemed like they wanted to push you out. They needed people. We weren’t actually ready for anything like this.” He learned how to repair and maintain the gigantic and complex engines of the B-17 “Flying Fortress” aircraft.
Criss-crossing the country followed, and his unit organized in Maine for a trip across the Atlantic Ocean. He was one of 10,000 troops on the USS West Point. “It meant we were going to war,” he said. “We were escorted by submarines and some battle wagons going over. You could hear gunfire going off.”
DeStefano’s destination was Bovingdon Air Base in Hertfordshire, England. The first American tenant, according to an Internet website, was the 92nd Bombardment Group (Heavy) known as “Fame’s Favorite Few.”
The B-17s had four engines with propellers, nine crew members and payloads of bombs that weighed between 100 and 1,000 pounds.
Mechanics accompanied bombing raids early on, but it was later forbidden because the Air Corps couldn’t spare its aircraft maintenance personnel.
“We had a lot of holes to repair,” he recalled. “I only flew on a test flight.”
At Bovingdon, DeStefano he lived in a tent, also referred to as a hut. “We lived in (the) tents because we were on call,” he said. Despite the cold and rainy weather, he and his comrades entered barracks only to dine and bathe.
The B-17s’ first targets were in France, but as the war progressed, the planes bombed Germany.
DeStefano he took care of three planes, two of which returned from each mission. From the third plane, the crew came back. The plane was shot down, but the crew parachuted out in France and made it to Britain.
Once the war ended, DeStefano was part of a crew that transported by air a fraction of Europe’s displaced persons.
The guns were removed from the plane and seats were installed. “We were transporting refugees,” said DeStefano, who achieved the rank of technical sergeant.
When he was discharged, he reenlisted in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Returning to Washington, in 1946 he married Carmellina Passalaqua, daughter of local restaurateur Angelo Passalaqua. The couple’s two children are Debbie DeStefano and Janice DeStefano Taper.
DeStefano was reactivated in 1950 due to the Korean War, reacting with disbelief that he could again be in the thick of things.
And, almost as unbelievably, his captain gave him the option of opting out of the service because he was married and the father of two. He could have chosen to be stationed in Germany, but he had seen enough of destruction to know it, too, would be a tough assignment.
He came home and worked for 35 years at Angelo’s Restaurant on West Chestnut Street in Washington. He also is a lifelong member of Immaculate Conception Church.
“I did everything,” he said. “When her parents got old, we took it over.”
Having outlived his wife and siblings, he has never regretted his return to civilian life.
“Regardless where you go,things are tough,” DeStefano said. “I’m the last one of the family. I’m particularly glad I didn’t go to Korea, because it was bad.”