AMBRIDGE, Pa. — They were young in the 1940s: 17, 18, 19 years old.
They answered a call to defend the nation and the world from a dark threat of tyranny wrought by Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and imperialist Japan.
They faced the awesome task of going to fight in World War II. They were kids like Samuel Gurmosa of Ambridge.
Gurmosa, who changed his surname to Grey in the 1950s, grew up in the town named for the American Bridge Co. It was the place where steel was fashioned into the skeletal framework of many of the nation’s ships, bridges and buildings.
Grey graduated from Ambridge High in 1942 and in August of that year enlisted in the U.S. Navy.
His assignment was aboard the Ambridge-built LST-656, a “landing ship, tank” that was the vessel that enabled the Allies to invade the shores of Europe and Asia to win the war.
“It was amazing,” Grey said of serving on the ship. “I was the only person from Ambridge on board. I drew the lucky card.”
The ship was commissioned 70 years ago today -- April 7, 1944 -- and to honor the men who served aboard, along with the men and women who worked at American Bridge Co. to build it, a ceremony was celebrated Sunday in Grey’s hometown.
The sun shined as brightly as the twinkle in Grey’s eyes. The soon-to-turn 91-year-old retired public administrator returned to his hometown to hugs, handshakes and smiles.
Grey helped to orchestrate a trio of ceremonies Sunday that also included events on the Atlantic and Pacific shores to mark the anniversary of LST-656’s commissioning.
“He called the post one day and asked if he could have the ceremony,” said Mike Quinn, commander of Ambridge American Legion Post 341. “I told him I’d try to get it together. I’m just glad we could do it for him.”
Members of the Ambridge High School Marine Corps Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC) joined the Legionnaires and added some pomp to a wreath-throwing from the Ambridge-Aliquippa Bridge into the Ohio River, where LST-656 first took to water.
Eight sailors who served on the ship survive, and four participated in the simultaneous ceremonies Sunday, Grey said.
Sam Mimina and William Dietz took part in the Pacific observance, and Paul Jones threw a wreath into the Atlantic.
The LST-656 participated in the invasion of southern France in 1944 and saw service in the Pacific during the war, Grey said.
One of the things that struck the men who served on the ship was how solidly she was built, Grey said. The ship took on a mine and weathered a typhoon during her war service, but was never damaged during her service, he said.
“There was not one fault on the ship,” Grey said.
He marveled at the workmanship of the laborers of American Bridge, many of whom were women enlisted to help in the war effort, he said.
It’s an honor to recognize those who served in World War II and to celebrate Ambridge’s part in that war, said Michael Mikulich, president of Ambridge Council, an American Legion Post 341 member and a Vietnam veteran.
“There are not too many guys left,” he said of the members of what’s now known as the "greatest generation" of American war veterans.
It’s also important to remember American Bridge Co. and other mills in the region that stepped up production during the war, Mikulich said.
His father, also named Michael, worked as a welder at American Bridge and worked to build some of the ships, Mikulich said.
“The Navy would come down and launch them onto the Ohio River,” he said.
They would navigate south to the Mississippi before leaving the country at New Orleans, Mikulich said his father told him.
“I think it’s pretty historic; Ambridge was a major part of World War II,” Mikulich said.
Carl Curtis, the 26th district deputy commander of the American Legion, also called Sunday “a historical moment.” When thinking about the major events of World War II, people may not think of Ambridge, but they should, Curtis said.
“Some significant things happened here,” he said.
After the war, Grey went to the University of Pittsburgh and Pennsylvania University, and he became a public administrator, first working in Sewickley Heights, then in Richmond, Mich., and Zanesville, Ohio, before settling in St. Clair County, Mich., where he worked as county administrator from 1974 until his retirement in 1987 and where he still lives.
He remains fond of his hometown and tries to get back often, he said.
“It’s especially nice to meet guys that are the sons of people I knew,” he said. “It’s amazing.”
Grey enjoyed spending time Sunday sharing some of his stories with the JROTC members, who listened intently in a parking lot of the shore of the river.
“This ship could carry 20 Sherman tanks,” he told them as he explained how LSTs enabled the U.S. to fight from the shores of Europe and in the Asiatic islands. “Without the LSTs, there would have been no invasions.”
He smiled often as he surveyed the scene during the ceremony.
“This is my town,” he said.