West Rutland launches plan to honor WWII veterans
By Darren Marcy
Staff Writer | November 11,2013
Red Sutkoski, 93, finds his name and picture in a scrapbook of World War II veterans.
WEST RUTLAND — Ken Heleba said his father joined the military despite having three kids and a pregnant wife.
“He volunteered because he thought it was his duty,” Heleba said.
Today, Heleba wants to make sure that World War II veterans like his father, Michael Heleba, and close to 500 others from West Rutland at least get the recognition they deserve.
Heleba has spearheaded an effort in the town that has been taken up by the West Rutland Historical Society to study not only who is deserving of recognition, but design a monument to honor them as well.
The plans are to end up with a World War II memorial and dedicate it in 2015 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.
On Oct. 8, people packed a room at the West Rutland Town Hall to honor World War II veterans at a Historical Society meeting.
Five of America’s Greatest Generation — Charles Vajda, Charles Katomski, Red Sutkoski, Joe Czachor and Leo DiGangi — were in attendance that night and listened to the story of how Heleba rediscovered a long lost Roll of Honor.
The story that emerged told of a three-panel wall, painted white with black letters, that was erected on the lawn of the Rutland Town School in 1943 featuring the names of 472 people who had fought in the war, including nine who didn’t come home.
Heleba said that as he looked for more information, he also started finding people whose name belonged there, but, for one reason or another, had been left off.
One of those people was Heleba’s father.
Heleba told how, as a young boy in West Rutland in the early 1950s, he found the wall behind a shrub that had grown to nearly completely obscure it.
He knew his father had fought in World War II, but his name wasn’t there. It bothered the young Heleba, but in time he forgot about the wall that didn’t include his father’s name.
Then, this past summer, Heleba was looking for historical photos to spice up the Facebook site: “You Know You’re From West Rutland,” which features old photos and memories of the town.
That’s when his mother-in-law pulled out a photo and when he looked at it, he was immediately transported back to that boyhood memory.
Again, he scanned the photo for his father’s name. It wasn’t there.
Now 66, Heleba said it started to eat at him again, and he started researching it and asking around.
That’s when Tom Tumielewicz produced a scrapbook with a lot more information, and the search started bearing fruit.
So far another dozen or more names have been found that should have been on the wall, and estimates suggest the total will likely be around 500 names once word starts to spread. They’ve also found a 10th West Rutlander who died in the war.
The 1940 census reported West Rutland’s population at 2,922, meaning more than one-sixth of the town’s population joined the war effort. Only Poultney was reported to have had a higher per-capita participation rate.
The last anybody remembers of the wall was in the 1960s, and nobody knows what happened to it.
Mary Reczek is on the board of the Historical Society, and she said the turnout and passion with which people embraced the idea led the society to pursue the project.
After the Historical Society meeting, about 20 people gathered as a committee and quickly formed two subcommittees. One will pursue names that should be on the wall and verify them. The second will decide what kind of monument to erect.
The leading proposal is something made of granite that will allow for the inclusion of veterans from other wars at some point.
The group is starting with the World War II vets because that is what was presented to them, but Reczek said there is something different about that war.
“We really did fear for our future with Hitler and so on,” she said. “And it involved everybody. It wasn’t just the people who served, but on the homefront.”
She said anybody alive at the time remembers the rationing, blackouts, and effort that went into fighting the war in Europe and the Pacific.
“Even though it was fought on another continent, it involved everybody,” Reczek said.
Plus, men like Michael Heleba, Ken Heleba’s father, and the other World War II veterans went off to war then came back and picked up their lives and, largely, didn’t talk about it.
“They were kind of plucked out of their homes, put on a troop ship and shipped to Europe or Asia, then brought back and they went back to their mills or farms,” Reczek said. “I think many who served struggled with it. But you didn’t hear about it.”
Reczek said they had to do things that went against everything they knew was right, because they had to.
“They didn’t consider it anything special,” she said. “It was just something they did because they had to. And I think that just kind of describes the whole generation.”
The subcommittees will work on their tasks through the winter, and a decision is expected by May, when fundraising will begin.
Reczek said a lot of people don’t think that what they have in storage is worthy or isn’t significant enough, but this effort is beginning to pay off as people realize that a photo or a letter can be part of a puzzle and provide details.
“What Ken has done is kick this whole project into the 21st century,” Reczek said. “I think right now we’re getting a tremendous amount of resources.”
Anybody who would like to have the committee consider a name for inclusion can send the name and any documentation in the way of letters, photos, medals and other materials to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And if anyone is interested in joining the effort — either researching names or planning the monument — they can email that address or contact Town Hall and leave a message for the Historical Society.