By John Hayes / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, November 11, 2016
Bob Harbula rolled across a tire-rutted dirt road and hid behind bushes. On Nov. 2, 1950, during a resupply mission into North Korea preceding the epic Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, the machine gunner’s convoy was ambushed. The rest of his squad had been killed.
He shifted nervously behind the bush, finding blood on his soiled uniform that wasn’t his own and hearing heavy firing farther up the road.
Six months earlier in Washington, D.C., Mr. Harbula wore a crisp Marine dress uniform and ushered senators and their wives to screenings of “The Sands of Iwo Jima.” His ceremonial unit performed silent drills, participated in public relations events and, behind the scenes at Arlington National Cemetery, buried soldiers who had been killed in a faraway conflict that was rarely discussed.
Fifty-six years later, Mr. Harbula, 85, of West Mifflin is still bothered by the way he and many other soldiers were sent to Korea without adequate training. Recently, over breakfast, he vented with veterans of other wars.
“It was five years after World War II, and [the American military] wasn’t prepared. They were undermanned,” he said. “[The Marines] were scrounging for anybody they could get, and units like mine were thrown into battle without much training. We were undersupplied and just not ready for 20 to 30 degrees below zero. We weren’t prepared for no food, eating snow for water, living in our own filth, the horrible sounds of battle, blood all over from your buddies, doing things to fellow humans that you could never have done before, things you can’t forget and don’t talk about. But you had to do
it to stay alive.”
Decorated for his service, Mr. Harbula was among dozens of former soldiers and sailors from the Pittsburgh area who shared stories with the only people they believe could understand. At meetings of the Veterans Breakfast Club, vets from all military branches who served in places as diverse as Normandy and Falluja do something many had never done before: They talk about it.
“This started because of the educational value for me,” said club organizer Todd DePastino, a historian and former college history teacher from Mt. Lebanon with no military background. “But it soon became clear there was a healing element in this. These veterans need to share their stories, and we need to hear them.”
Mr. DePastino runs the group with a telephone and a microphone. No fees, dues, subscriptions or grants, he said. Invited speakers visit for free, promotion is mostly word of mouth, and food and venues are donated, rented at a discount or paid with the club’s only earned revenue — an optional $12 donation for breakfast.
The group was started in 2008 with a breakfast in Baldwin for 30 World War II veterans. This year, Mr. DePastino booked 55 breakfast meetings throughout southwestern Pennsylvania. The club is on track, he said, to host more than 3,000 veterans in 2016.
“Who do you talk to? How do you find out what happened beyond what you could see?” Mr. Harbula asked. “How do you explain that kind of cold — surrounding yourself with dead Chinese to provide cover and break the wind? … All of your senses are put to the test in war. Your eyes see things you shouldn’t see. Your ears hear things — the noise is enormous. The things you have to feel. My assistant gunner was hit in the back of the head with shrapnel. I put my hand on the back of his head and his brains came out in my hand. Who else but another veteran can understand that and what it can do to you over the years?”
Warren Goss, 91, of Mt. Lebanon, wasn’t at that particular breakfast, but he said the gatherings have enabled him to open up about military campaigns that started with an amphibious landing in France on June 6, 1944.
“Actually it started for me on April 27, before the invasion, when a U-boat hit the boat that we were training on off the south coast of England,” he said. “We were told not to talk about it. That was Eisenhower’s greatest secret.”
About a month later, 18-year-old rifleman Army Pfc. Goss dropped into a Higgins landing craft to wait for his turn to land at Utah Beach. Under heavy fire, he watched other Higgins boats explode and disappear.
“When the ramp opened, we didn’t expect to see so many guys getting killed,” he said. “We were right on the open beach and just stormed up that beach so we wouldn’t end up like them.”
Mr. Goss served in four major European battles and was decorated for carrying out a soldier whose legs had been blown off at the Battle of the Bulge.
“You don’t talk about it. My mother and dad died, brother and sisters passed away, and they never heard a word about it,” Mr. Goss said. “Sometimes it does get upsetting to talk about those things. You wonder why you made it through, things that I did that I’m sorry about. But talking about it at the breakfasts made it easier.”
For more information about the Veterans Breakfast Club: veteransbreakfastclub.com. Upcoming breakfasts: today, Duquesne University, Uptown; Saturday, Memorial Park Presbyterian Church, McCandless; Nov. 22, Christ United Methodist Church, Bethel Park; Nov. 29, The Lamplighter, Delmont; and Nov. 30, Gianna Via’s Restaurant, Whitehall. Contact: 412-623-9029 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
John Hayes: 412-263-1991, email@example.com.