‘In the Presence of History’ – Program Shares Veterans’ Stories

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – At 16 years old, “Bullet” Bob Daley lost his brother to the Bataan Death March. The tragedy inspired young Daley to join the Marines.

After meeting with his visually impaired Irish priest who unknowingly signed an incorrectly dated baptismal record, Daley was finally able to join the Marine Corps. 

“He said, ‘I was at basic training and I realized I had lied to a priest. I lied to God and, worse than that, I lied to the Marine Corp,’ and he was certain he was going to pay for it,” said Todd DePastino, executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club.

Daley spent his 17th birthday in Saipan – an island in the south pacific defended by 29,000 Japanese soldiers.

“At one of the early breakfasts, he shared his story of how he got his nickname, ‘Bullet’ Bob,” DePastino said. 

DePastino said one night, Daley pointed his gun at the hatch of a Japanese tank before the sun came up, to capture the soldiers.

“A man looks up, and that’s when ‘Bullet’ Bob realizes he’s out of bullets,” DePastino said. “He’s out of ammunition and he says the most amazing thing happened – this Japanese soldier looked right at him and said in English, ‘I surrender. Where are you from?’”

This story was part of the Youngstown Area Jewish Federation’s Nosh & Knowledge speaker series Tuesday morning at Heritage Manor Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation, 517 Gypsy Lane. The program included breakfast and a talk by DePastino, an award-winning historian who founded the Veterans Breakfast Club in September 2008.

“Bullet” Bob Daley, Norm Waldman, Bernie Queneau, Julia Parsons and George Edward Abbott are just some of the many names of World War II veterans that DePastino has learned about over the years. Through conversations with veterans and their family members, he has cataloged many stories that he continues to share through his nonprofit.

“We are a nonprofit based in western Pennsylvania that holds veteran storytelling programs,” he said.   

DePastino said he is not a veteran and does not come from a military family, but after spending years as a historian and college history teacher, he discovered he was surrounded by veterans. Many of them had stories they were never asked to tell.

“There is so much history,” he said. “When you get together with veterans, you’re in the presence of history, and it’s absolutely fascinating to me – the knowledge and experience and the wisdom that the veterans have to share.”

No matter what branch of service, DePastino said every veteran has a story to tell.

“We buy them cups of coffee. We shake their hands and say, ‘Thank you for your service.’ But we don’t often take the time to learn from veterans,” he said. 

Todd DePastino, executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club, speaks about “Bullet” Bob Daley during Tuesday’s event.

DePastino said many people without military backgrounds may not know how to form those conversations. Through his organization, he decided to cover these topics in a public forum. 

“[When the program started], we had 30 World War II veterans in a hotel ballroom. We had a little breakfast, and then we had two and a half hours of storytelling,” DePastino said. 

Events are now held online every Monday night at 7 p.m. In-person events also take place, mainly around the western Pennsylvania area. 

“We have all kinds of people joining our events,” DePastino said. “We had people that were in rock bands and toured Vietnam during the Vietnam War. We had Gold Star families. … We had people that served behind a desk for 30 years, and we had people who served on the front lines for two years.”

DePastino said there is a lot to learn from these stories.

“For people like me, it’s the taste of what life is like – the life I didn’t lead, the choices I didn’t make [and] the things I didn’t do,” he said. “It’s a broadening experience to hear from people who have lived adventures that are very different from your own life.”

At the event Tuesday, DePastino said he was able to speak with a 101-year-old B-17 Flying Fortress navigator, a Marine who served at one of the most important battles of the Vietnam War, Navy veterans and Korean War veterans.

“You never quite know what you’re going to hear, but you’re probably going to be inspired and you’re certainly going to be educated,” he said. 

In attendance was Corrine Lawson, a mother and daughter of veterans. Her father was an Army veteran who served in Germany.

“When I first saw him back from the war, I was 5 years old,” she said. 

Lawson’s father was from Montgomery, Alabama. Her daughter also spent four years in the Air Force, where she served in Operation Desert Storm. 

“We are blessed with beautiful technology to be able to share these stories,” she said.

Barbara Wilson, director of Cultural Arts, Israel & Jewish Engagement at the Youngstown Jewish Community Center and the Youngstown Jewish Federation, at Tuesday’s event.

Barbara Wilson, director of Cultural Arts, Israel & Jewish Engagement at the Youngstown Jewish Community Center and the Youngstown Jewish Federation, said the new Nosh & Knowledge speaker series features a wide variety of speakers. 

“We are just a variety of programming to see what we can do to bring new information to our community,” she said. 

Eight programs will be offered as part of the series through spring 2024.

“We were picking things that we thought would be of interest to the community members that we service,” Wilson said. “We tried to find programs that we really hadn’t taught about before.”

Wilson had done some work with DePastino before, and he seemed like the perfect fit for the program.

To include the residents, a private roundtable discussion was held at 10 a.m. 

“We have about 20 veterans that reside on our campus, and we had about 14 of them in,” Wilson said.

Wilson said it is important to learn from veterans and learn how to better service them to meet their needs. Additionally, she said it is important to offer these experiences to residents who may otherwise not be able to leave the facility. 

“All of our events will be open to the public,” she said. “Some will be free, and some will have a minimum $5 charge to help us offset the cost of the food and the speaker.

More information on the events can be found HERE or by calling Wilson at 330 746 3251, ext. 106.

Pictured at top: From left are Todd DePastino, executive director of the Veterans Breakfast Club; Sheila Lawson, an Air Force veteran; and Corrine Lawson, the daughter and mother of former military members.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.