Based on their outstanding service to their American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars Posts, Sal Condoluci and Karol Szaja have been selected as the Co- Grand Marshals of this year's Memorial Day Parade. Working tirelessly to visit hospitals and assist other veterans, these two Port Washingtonians are modest about their deeds but delighted to have been given this honor.
Delightful and outgoing, Condoluci explained that his military service started in 1936, when he joined the Army and was stationed, in peacetime, in Hawaii. Here he was in charge of the drum and bugle corps; he even got a tattoo of the flag and a bugle on his shoulder to commemorate it. In 1945, when WWII had just ended, Condoluci was drafted and spent the next four years in Japan. His first assignment as an infantryman was to guard the imprisoned Japanese Army General Tojo until his execution. During his service, Condoluci learned some Japanese, and though it was nearly 50 years ago, he is still able to say some sentences in Japanese today.
With the first Cavalry Division, Condoluci went to a camp near Tokyo, where he did guard and KP duty. But his military service wasn't limited to serving on land. One of his years was spent in the Airborne Division, which required that he go to jumping school. He did about 50 jumps, he believes, all successful. It was when he was aboard airplanes that crashes occurred. One crash was in a glider. Though injured, Condoluci, characteristically, makes light of it. But he grows sad when he thinks of comrades lost. "People died because they didn't know how to land," he said. "There were deaths each month."
Condoluci has lived in PW for about 37 years, with wife Catherine, known by many as Kay, who works at Schreiber High School. They've been married 46 years, and have a daughter, Catherine, a son Joseph, and three grandchildren: Joseph Jr., Anthony, and Jessica. He's a member of both the American Legion Post 509 and VFW Post 1819.
Even though he served when his country called, and even though he constantly visits patients in hospitals, helps with charitable collections, and assists disabled veterans, Condoluci explained, "I can't grasp that I have the opportunity to be co-Grand Marshal." He is, nonetheless, "very, very, proud," he said with obvious delight.
Leading with him will be his co-Grand Marshall, Karol Szaja. This soft-spoken man with the warmest of smiles was born in the Polish village of Wierzchowiska. He is from a large family; besides mother Katarzyna and father Felix, he had two brothers, Ludwig and Ignatz, and four sisters, Zofia, Stella, Stefka, and Bronka. Only his sisters are still alive.
In 1943, when he was 16, Szaja was "rounded up" with other young people and put on trains for Germany. He was put to work on a farm, substituting for the German soldiers at war. Though he said he was treated humanely, he nonetheless had to wear an armband with a "P" for Pole. "People 12 years old and up were made to work on farms or factories," he explained. But on April 10, 1945 at 10 a.m., the American troops arrived, and nothing can fully capture the joyousness of that moment. "To see the American uniforms... it's elation that words can't describe," Szaja said, throwing his arms out as if in an embrace.
For ten months, Szaja stayed in a Displaced Persons Camp, and then he signed up to do guard duty for the American Army, as a civilian volunteer. "American taxpayers were feeding us, and I wasn't working or anything," was his explanation.
After training, he guarded American supply depots in Munich until his transfer to a German prisoner of war camp. "I felt good that I was doing something constructive, and enabled soldiers to be discharged and return to their civilian life," he said thoughtfully. Later, he guarded American families by patrolling the roads around and into the village.
In 1947, his company was transferred again, this time to a war crimes prison. Here he met the inhuman Ilsa Koch, married to the former commandant of Buchenwald concentration camp. She gained infamy from her lamp shades made, unbelievably, from the skin of concentration camp inmates. Koch was pregnant, Szaja recalls, and the guards were given strict instructions to get her to the local hospital as soon as her labor began, or else her baby might be considered an American citizen.
In 1949, a man in his early twenties, Szaja came to the United States, though his brother emigrated to Australia. "Those three letters -- USA -- are magic," he said, of his decision. After finding work on Long Island, he became a brick layer /mason, and in June of 1952, married wife Madeline. At the same time, he received his draft notice, and anticipated going to fight in Korea. But instead of Korea, Szaja was sent to Fort Mead, Maryland, to do military intelligence, due to his knowledge of foreign languages.
He was promoted to corporal in 1954.
Another momentous day occurred in 1953, when Szaja started citizenship classes. In November of the same year, he was sworn in as a citizen of the US. "I felt great," he said, the event still bringing a smile to his face.
Szaja is very proud of his two children, Karol Junior and Cathlene, and two grandchildren, Melissa and Jennifer. When American Legion Post 509 bestowed this honor upon him, Szaja said, "I was honored by it, and surprised." And like his co-Grand Marshal, he said with genuine modesty, "Former soldiers in combat deserve it more than me."
Don't miss seeing these fine gentlemen (and all the other wonderful veterans) at the annual Memorial Day parade.