Penn Hills native and WWII veteran turns 100
Thursday, February 13, 2020 | 10:08 AM
A World War II veteran and former Penn Hills resident recently celebrated his centennial birthday.
Army Col. Joseph DeCesare turned 100 last month.
“I feel fine,” he said. “I feel stronger than anybody, even you.”
The family had a party for him at Concordia of Monroeville, an assisted living facility. He and his late wife, Mary, moved there in September 2014.
DeCesare credits his longevity to drinking wine.
He was born and raised in Turtle Creek. He graduated from Turtle Creek High School in 1937 and began painting houses to earn a living.
He married Mary Ivanco Oct. 24, 1941, and was drafted less than four months later to fight in the war.
“We had to go whether we wanted to or not,” DeCesare said. “When the Army says go, you go. You don’t say no to anybody.”
He trained at Camp Croft in Spartanburg, S.C., as well as Fort Devens in Massachusetts. He was selected for service in the 179th Infantry Regiment, 45th Division.
DeCesare was deployed to Oran, Africa, in June 1943 and participated in the Allied invasion of Sicily, code named Operation Husky.
DeCesare tried to remember his time in the service, as well as his civilian life, as best he could.
Fortunately, he kept a notebook during his time overseas. Those notes were transcribed for his daughter, Marion Dozzi, who’s weaving them into a book called “My Daddy’s Story.”
The notes focus on his time as a prisoner of war. DeCesare was captured by a Romel Tank outfit at Anzio Beach off the coast of Italy on Feb. 17, 1944.
He wrote about being put in front of a firing squad and ordered to be killed, but German high command stopped it because of the Geneva Convention. Instead, he was taken to a dark dungeon with rats and no food. He was eventually given bread mixed with sawdust and some water.
He was taken to Rome, moved to Farasabina and Laterina before soldiers took him to Mantova via boxcar.
DeCesare wrote about an escape effort during the Mantova trip that was thwarted and was denied rations as a result. He somehow received mail from his family during the ordeal.
Other notes describe times he slept in a sheep pen, marched to different farmhouses and narrowly missed being shot while attempting to get fresh milk, eggs and carrots with other prisoners. He used a hand-made tin contraption and coal to cook food.
“You ate everything you had,” DeCesare said about his experiences.
He recalled, via notes, seeing Adolf Hitler in person, and his group being marched into the POW camp Stalag 111A in Luckenwalde, Bradenburg, about 52 kilometers south of Berlin.
DeCesare and his group were liberated on April 22, 1945, when Russian tanks and infantrymen came crashing through the camp’s fence. It took a few weeks before American trucks came and took the people out.
They made it to France and several other locations before returning to the United States. He arrived back in Pittsburgh on June 16, 1945.
DeCesare earned a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantry Badge, Good Conduct Medal and a European-African-Middle Eastern Service Medal with bronze stars.
“I did not want to go back,” DeCesare said about returning to service.
DeCesare returned to civilian life and back to painting and crafting things out of wood to provide for his family.
His message for young people was, “You don’t get (anything) for nothing.”
Daughter Marie Novotny said she’s grateful to have grown up around such a kind and honorable man.
“My father was a strong man,” she said. “(He) could do anything with his hands. A Mr. Fixit for sure. He was always there to help friends and neighbors, but more especially his family, children and grandchildren. He made cradles and kitchen cabinets for his daughters and granddaughters, made replica wooden airplanes and boats, windmills and fake animals for the yards. If you asked for it, he made it for you. If it broke, he fixed it.”
She said DeCesare was tough and instilled discipline, which turned out to be beneficial in the long run.
“As we got older and had kids of our own, we could certainly understand why he was so strict,” Novotny said.
DeCesare was a member of St. Susanna Church in Penn Hills, and would vacation on a boat out in Deep Creek Lake in Maryland.
His wife, a longtime Penn Hills crossing guard, died Jan. 22, 2015. She was 90.
He has five grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild.