WWII vet continues to serve nation in honor guard

St. Clair, PA

On Monday, Joseph Gravish carried an American flag and stood outside of a church, then made his way to the cemetery, where he did the same thing. Though he’s 93, being an active member of the honor guard in his area of Pennsylvania doesn’t seem extraordinary to him.

“We have a 93-year-old gentleman that still serves his country and his comrades, and he does it every day,” his son, Joseph M. Gravish, said. “He thinks it’s just normal to do that. He was a member of the firing squad, and he can’t do that. Then he was a bugler and he can’t do that. Now he takes care of the flag. And he will continue to do that until he physically can’t anymore.”

“It is important,” Gravish said. “Each soldier deserves this. I see some places are trying to do away with it, and I don’t think it should be because the soldier deserves that. We should give them a decent burial with the Taps and the presenting of the flag. We don’t ask for any pay, we do it voluntarily anyway. No matter what would happen, we would still do that.”

So, in the heat of July and in winter snow, Gravish reports for roll call to honor those who’ve protected and served this country.

Perhaps it’s because of what he remembers so well of what his fellow soldiers have done for him.

Three little books, well-kept diaries, keep Gravish in touch with the past. Inside, the dates and locations, the duties and brief descriptions of what was for him, everyday life unfold during World War II as part of the Army Air Corps.

While he was in Europe, he was sick for several weeks — so sick the powers that be wanted to ship him back out, Joseph M. said, which meant he would have been removed and never returned.

A man in his unit named Guido “Pete” Petracco, along with a few other friends, nursed him back to health.

“They did everything for my father — fed him, bathed him, everything else, so he could stay with them. It portrays the intense loyalty that these gentlemen had.”

This intense loyalty extended even to seemingly insignificant gestures and sacrifices. One worn-down pair of shoes served Gravish through all combat. A size 5 ½ was difficult to come by. When the shoes were worse for the wear, he would pay to have them repaired and wear civilian shoes. Almost just before his discharge, he received new shoes in Indiantown Gap, Pa.

But these shoes, such as they were, were the ones he wore even at Omaha Beach.

“It was at midnight when we arrived, and we walked up toward our staging area. As we were walking up, the lieutenant that was leading us, he bumped into an MP that asked where we were going. The MP told him if we continued that road, we were going to walk right into the German line. It was raining, so we slept in a ditch in the road. The next day we got into our staging area.”

There, his squadron followed the infantry and artillery closely, and under fire and bombing, worked to ensure landing strips existed for planes.

His crew was usually near combat, usually near the fire, sometimes repairing planes to be sent back to a base in England.

“About a month later, we were near St. Lo, then we were at St.-Mère-Église —that was at the end of July, we were under fire, we under artillery fire and also bombing from planes, and so forth. How could I describe that to you, you know? It was a harrowing experience anyway.”

But small kindnesses also made pleasant times possible.

In Holland, the soldiers had taken refuge in a family apple orchard. The family had three infants who were starving.

“The Germans didn’t give them any food or help them at all, but we helped them. Petracco got a box of food sent from home through the mail: spaghetti. And he made spaghetti for the family, and it took him so many hours to make his sauce. Anyway, we fed the family. I had written to my wife about them, and I still keep in touch with them at Christmas to this day, with the son. Every Christmas they send me a card, and I send them a card also.”

Decades later, thanks to some help from his son, he would return and be able to visit the family, who immediately recognized him.

Gravish and his friends not only played an important role in the lives of this family, but in service of the Allied Forces. As an officer in the Army, Joseph M. was able to access files, microfiche, and other strategic information that helped contextualize the role his father’s squadron played during the war.

“He was a little guy on the ground, but there he’s part of the big picture.” Gravish also received five bronze stars.

Yet, ever-modest, Gravish deflects to his friendships, with men like Petracco, whom he kept in touch with for many years, and the other friends from his crew who would remain close until their passing, as an important and fulfilling part of his life. In that group, Joseph M. said, his father served as a sort of historian because of his diaries.

“I’ve often thought about this: a group of my buddies were very close. And we would talk about our experiences. Some of us had a difficult time remembering crossing the channel, some of us were scared, some of us just couldn’t remember. It is a difficult thing to explain.”

But, in some sense, this unspeakable bond, with its humility, patriotism and service, is one he shares with his family and has passed down two generations; both his son and grandson (both also named Joseph) served in the Army and belong to American Legion Post 719. With Gravish, who has been a member of the Legion for more than 65 years, Joseph M. who has been a member for more than 25 years, and Joseph Jr., they are approaching 100 years of combined membership.

“I’m proud of them,” Gravish said of his son and grandson. “I’m really proud of them. I don’t know if I influenced them, but Memorial Day we put flags out in the cemeteries and they would help, and we still do that. We also place flags on all the veterans’ graves every year.”

It’s this dedication that Joseph M. said defines his father’s generation.

“The things they do behind the scenes that nobody reads about," Joseph M. said. "They don’t expect a lot of notoriety, but they just do it. Without them, there would be nobody. There would be no great military service.”

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