Updated: Jun 4, 2021
Generations later, featured soldiers still
have descendants living in area
Charles Sisko and the "Bottoms Boys".
As the conflict ramped up in the latter stages of World War II, towns and cities across America came to be dominated by news of its progress and casualties.
In towns like McKees Rocks and Stowe, hundreds of young men were enlisted to fight overseas, and many never made it home. During those uneasy years, soldiers stayed connected to their hometown through the McKees Rocks Gazette, which began publishing letters from stationed troops in each issue.
In turn, soldiers had the paper mailed to their stations, where they found comfort skimming through banal stirrings in the town and looked out for updates from neighborhood friends deployed elsewhere in Europe and the Pacific.
Sandy Saban and Vicky Batcha of the McKees Rocks Historical Society search through old copies of the Gazette looking for WWII letters.
“There were tons of these letters,” said Sandy Saban, president of the McKees Rocks Historical Society. “Every issue had letters – it was its own section.”
Aside from the letters, war news bled into all pages of the paper, which also ran weekly updates on new enlistment, drafts, promotions and deaths. In 1943, the paper put out an 80-page special paying tribute to the town’s servicemen.
“The Gazette played such an important role… that’s how these guys stayed together during the war,” said Saban.
A child of Carpatho-Rusyn emigrants, Charles Sisko grew up in “the Bottoms” of McKees Rocks and signed up to military service in 1943 aged 18.
Enlisted in the 17th Airborne Division, Sisko was dropped into enemy lines from a glider aircraft in a daring escapade codenamed Operation Varsity. Sisko and the other infantrymen made inroads into Northwestern Germany, eventually capturing the industrial city of Essen, dubbed “the Pittsburgh of the Ruhr.” The mission accomplished its objectives but also claimed the lives of more than a thousand U.S. 17th Airborne and British 6th Airborne infantrymen in the process.
Before his deployment to Germany, Sisko was stationed in England, where he penned a short letter to the Gazette giving news of his whereabouts and asking for updates from his buddies among the “Bottoms Boys.”
“The Gazette is about the only contact I have with my friends who are scattered everywhere and I’m forever looking for someone’s name who may be in this vicinity,” Sisko wrote in a letter published in the paper. “I sure would like to bump into Metro Kadlyak who I’m pretty sure is either in the 82nd or the 101st Airborne outfit.”
Saban said her father never said much about his wartime experience, despite various attempts to get him to open up.
“I think he saw enough where he just didn’t want to talk about it,” she said.
Saban later learned more about her father’s military service through one of his comrades who after Sisko’s death in 1990.
One story Sisko didn’t mind retelling is preserved in a scrap of canvas he brought back with him after his discharge.
It came from the glider that carried him into Germany, and which, according to Saban, he felt he needed a piece of.
“He just cut it out, and took it with him,” she said. “That was such a Bottoms thing to do.”
Stephen Husava was the firstborn child of Ignatius and Julia Husava, who emigrated from Slovakia in 1913, settling in McKees Rocks.
Aged 22, Husava enrolled in the U.S. Navy in 1942 and spent more than three years at sea before returning home in December 1945.
He wrote to the Gazette in 1944 after a short stop in port, without disclosing his location.
“I am very glad to be shoving off for overseas duty again,” he wrote. “I think the men of our ship will be very proud of her. She is going to be the flagship.”
“I want you to know that I really enjoy reading the hometown news…Tell some of my gang I say hello and wish them the best of luck.”
Stephen’s brother, John, was also stationed overseas and wrote the Gazette from France in 1944.
After his discharge in 1945, Stephen returned to McKees Rocks for several years before taking a job in Detroit, where he raised his two children.
Son Stephen Husava Jr. said his father refused to talk about his war experiences, even after he himself joined the Navy in 1967.
“I sat there last night thinking man I don’t know much about his three and half years in service, which is sad.”
Husava’s niece Deb Valenti, a Robinson resident and McKees Rocks Historical Society member said she remembers both her uncles as quiet and reserved men.
She recalls fondly Easter and Christmas holidays, where the entire Husava clan would gather around grandmother Julia’s table in Sproul Street.
“We all fit in her kitchen somehow,” she said.
Reared in Stowe’s West Park neighborhood, Ray Bennett joined the service in August 1942, just six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor prompted America’s entry into the war.
Photo by Jamie Wiggan Dorothy Bennett and son Bobby share the personal military records of husband and father Raymond Bennett during a visit to the Gazette 2.0 office.
Bennett was trained as a heavy machine gunner and stationed in the Pacific arena for about 30 months.
During a month-long reprieve in Australia, Bennett wrote to the Gazette with an update for friends and family back home.
“Spent 36 days in Australia and spent every day like a king. The food was excellent and believe it or not there was no rationing,” he wrote. “While here in Guinea, I met two fellows from West Park. One was Phil Sockel and the other John Myles... I am in good health and getting along fine.”
Bennett’s surviving wife Dorothy and son Bobby said he always referred to his time in Australia as a highlight of his war experience.
“They were happy to have the Americans there,” Bobby said. “They treated him like a king.”
Bennett returned home in December 1945, unscathed aside from a shattered thumb he caught in a machine gun. He also twice contracted Malaria during his deployment.
Bennett spent the rest of his life working as a machinist for the Pennsylvania and Lake Erie Railroad, later taking a job at a US Steel-owned supply facility on the Northside.
Bennett volunteered for 61 years as a Stowe firefighter before his death in 2001.
Pittock-born James Seretti was one of five brothers who served in the armed forces during World War II.
Enlisting in 1941, Seretti spent time in North Africa and later partook in the D-Day Landings, where he earned a medal for helping others among his company make it to dry land.
“He was an excellent swimmer and he kept running back in and helping them out,” said brother David Seretti, 91, of Crafton.
Seretti wrote to the McKees Rocks Gazette from France after the Normandy invasion, where despite the surrounding bloodshed he maintained a buoyant outlook.
“I can help finish this war, which I hope isn’t too far off and I think we can make a good job of it,” he wrote.
“I am still receiving the Gazette, a little late, but it’s good news and I hope it continues coming.”
Several months before the invasion, James was able to meet up with his younger brother John who was for a time stationed nearby him in Northern Ireland.
David — too young to serve in WWII but who later joined the Navy during the Korean War — remembered Judge Michael Musmanno giving a speech in Pittock to rally the newly enlisted troops before they left town for war.
Recalling his late uncle, Harry Seretti, Stowe’s ordinance officer, said he was always struck more than anything else by his immense physical strength.
“He was one of the toughest guys whoever came out of this town.”
Like many of the young men from McKees Rocks who served in World War II, Valerian Szal was a first-generation American whose parents settled here from Eastern Europe.
Before he was drafted in 1942, Szal studied music at the former Carnegie Institute of Technology and had begun a promising career as a bandleader.
Like Seretti, Szal’s time in the infantry led him ultimately to the beaches of Normandy in 1944. Writing shortly after arriving there in a letter to the Gazette, Szal relayed how he had stumbled upon a fellow Roxian during the first day of the landing operation:
“The morning that we hit the beachhead, whom do you think I would bump into — that’s right — a fellow from the good old Rocks, Marty Vrabel.”
Following the successful D-Day Campaign, Szal was honorably discharged and returned to McKees Rocks, where he enrolled in mortuary school and founded his own funeral service in 1953.
According to grandson and current supervisor of the 68-year-old business Mike Ferrell, Szal’s interest in funeral work began during his wartime years, where he was “in some way involved” intending to the remains of fallen soldiers.
“That is actually how his interest in funeral service came about,” Ferrell said.
Ferrell said his grandfather kept his combat memories closely hidden, and to this day he knows little about what he witnessed in Europe.
“He was like a lot of the guys, they served the way they needed to and they didn’t really talk about it,” Ferrell said. “I think it was something he didn’t want to relive.”
Sponsored Content by:
This Memorial Day history installment has been sponsored by the McKees Rocks Historical Society. The group will restart its monthly in-person gatherings sometime this summer. During the pandemic, meetings were put on hold, although work on the seasonal window display at the office of Sen. Wayne Fontana in the Kenmawr Plaza in Kennedy continued. For updates or to get involved, contact the historical society through its Facebook page.