PITTSBURGH — Pasquale “Pat” Papalia capped off his Silver Star day, in which he disarmed two enemy mines deep in a Vietnam jungle, by helping to carry out the bodies of more than a dozen fellow soldiers and cover them as best as he could on a makeshift landing pad.
“These were young men,” Papalia, 73, of North Strabane said, pausing to compose himself and choke back tears. “You try to give them some sort of dignity.”
On Sunday, Papalia will become the 31st serviceman inducted onto the Wall of Valor at the VFW Memorial Park Post 764 in McMurray, Washington County. The Italian kid who grew up in Pittsburgh's Bluff neighborhood never imagined he'd spend nearly 50 years either in the active military or as a civilian working for it, much less be honored for a medal earned all those years ago for gallantry in action.
“I was in Vietnam in 1967,” he said. “That was 47 years ago.”
Actions of the brave should never be forgotten, said his daughter, Donna Contarino, 54, of Annapolis, Md.
“This story needs to be told, so we don't forget,” she said. “My father never talked to us about Vietnam. Growing up, I never knew my father did something heroic.”
On Feb. 28, 1967, with Papalia in front, members of Company C, 4th Battalion, 31st Infantry plunged into a war zone. The private first class arrived in the country seven weeks earlier at 26 — old for a grunt.
While the platoon was under heavy fire from the Viet Cong, Papalia spotted an enemy mine tucked in some brush. He rushed over and cut the detonation wire. He spotted a thick, blue wire leading to another mine and did the same.
“If it would have went off, it would have killed me and probably five or six guys behind me,” Papalia said. “If it would have went off, I'd have been a dead man.”
Papalia's actions “opened the way for the rest of his platoon to advance and rout the enemy from their positions,” his Silver Star citation states.
“That's pretty brave,” said Bob Donnan, 63, of Peters, chairman of the VFW post's Wall of Valor committee. “Those could have blown up in his face.”
Later, members of Company B came under attack on Operation Junction City and called for backup. When members of his squad came under fire, a commander sent Papalia to help.
A fellow soldier ran toward him, saying he was going for help. A rifle round marred the top of his helmet.
“Langston's been hit,” the soldier said.
Papalia sprinted down a trail to his squad member, who was shot in the shoulder and lying in the open near a Viet Cong base camp. The two hid behind a small log as enemy fire continued. It was Papalia's first major battle.
Five other soldiers, including the company medic, called to him from nearby cover. Papalia said he threatened to kill the medic if he didn't come to help.
Papalia then emptied two clips and threw a hand grenade in the direction of the enemy fire. Fear set in as he thought of his three young children, including Donna — his oldest. Another would be born later.
“I just shot everywhere,” said Papalia, who received a Purple Heart for being impaled in the leg by a bamboo spear from an enemy booby trap. “I don't know if I killed the guy or not, to be honest with you. But we never took any more rounds.”
Papalia and others carried 15 bodies of fallen soldiers more than a mile to a location where a helicopter could retrieve them. One was Langston. Another was a soldier from the North Side whom Papalia said he'd met only once.
Three hours had passed since he disarmed the mines.
“It was quite a day,” Papalia said. “There were other battles, but they didn't really matter. The only one that matters is your first one. All the others pretty much end the same.”