YOUNGSTOWN – Joseph L. LeGasse Sr. served in three wars – World War II, Korea and Vietnam – earning a Purple Heart on his final tour of duty.
The Youngstown resident retired from the Army as a sergeant first class after 23 years of service, largely as a medic, and he recently said his “proudest moments” were when two of his sons attended West Point, and a third also was nominated, but opted for the Coast Guard Academy.
And the legacy continues. Now, two granddaughters, who are sisters, are serving in Afghanistan, one in the Army and one in the Air Force.
LeGasse, 84, is one of several local veterans featured in a new book by Porter Town Historian Suzanne Simon Dietz, “Honor Thy Brothers: The Fight Against Communism.”
“No matter what people think about war, we need to honor our soldiers because they are trying to defend our democracy and bring democracy to other countries,” Dietz said. “We need to keep their stories alive.”
Dietz will hold a book-signing from 2 to 4 p.m. Saturday at Ashker’s Coffee House, 400 Main St., Youngstown.
The event also will feature a Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Table Ceremony, presented by Lake Ontario Post 313, Veterans of Foreign Wars, of Youngstown.
“There are still prisoners of war and those missing in action, and we don’t want them to be forgotten,” Dietz said. “We thought this would be neat for the community to see. Our own post office here in Youngstown flies the POW/MIA flag, and yet most people don’t even realize it.”
The table is set for one, and everything that is carefully placed on the table has meaning, such as a single rose to symbolize loved ones who keep the faith and await their soldier’s return and salt for the tears those loved ones shed while waiting.
“There is no water to drink or food to eat,” explained Frank J. Gubala, of Kenmore, a Ransomville native who also is featured in Dietz’s book.
Gubala, now 65, earned two Purple Hearts for his service in Vietnam, suffering a shrapnel wound from a bomb that grazed his ear and nearly losing his legs to a land mine. He spent weeks in hospitals in Saigon and in Japan, and then in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
“I had to learn how to walk all over again,” the former Army specialist fourth class recalled.
But he re-entered civilian life, earned a college degree and embarked on a career in computer engineering, keeping his personal experiences of war in his heart.
“I didn’t talk about it,” he said. “None of my friends knew about it. Then, in 1996, our daughter, Julie, was a student at Rochester Institute of Technology, and she had to interview someone for a journalism class she was taking, and we sat down and talked for two hours.
“After that, Julie knew more about me than anyone in the world,” Gubala said, wiping away a tear. He and his wife, Joyce, also have a son, Jeff, who served as a Marine for eight years.
Gubala’s experience with his daughter inspired him to begin seeking out others from his years in the service, with the aid of his laptop. “I just started with my own order, and pretty soon, I had 1,000 names,” he said. “I found every one of them but two.”
Dietz, he said, “even helped me find one of our medics. I started making phone calls and talking to those who served or their families. It was rough. I was looking for the Ninth Infantry Division. Pretty soon, people from other companies and platoons were contacting me, and I ended up with 4,000 to 5,000 names. It became too much. But I’d like to get back to it someday.
“Now we have a reunion every year. We’ll have one in Indianapolis in August for our division, and then the next year we’ll have one for the regiment in Fort Benning, Ga. … We’ve had six so far, and they come from all over the world for it, even from Australia.”
LeGasse joined the Army at age 17, inspired by the service of his older brother, Francis. He served in France and witnessed the destruction in Germany before being sent back to the States to finish his tour of duty because his brother had been killed. It was at Fort Monmouth, N.J., that he learned how to become a medic while his months of service wound down.
He later volunteered for the Korean War when he learned that his good friend had been killed there. He went with the First Cavalry Division and worked as a medic on the 38th parallel, witnessing the full horrors of war up close.
Yet at age 37, married with a family, LeGasse again volunteered to enter jungle warfare as a medic – this time in Vietnam, where he earned a Purple Heart when he was hit with shrapnel while surrounded at the Cambodian border.
His wife of 58 years, Susanne, who worked as a nurse and is the mother of seven children, said, “It’s an honor for Joe to be part of this book.”
Dietz said that compiling the notes from about 16 veterans and their families – most of them local – was a “spiritual journey.”
“It’s been a privilege for me to have someone share his story,” Dietz said. “I know how private that is. I don’t think people really understand what they went through. … I think people will be surprised by what the veterans shared.”