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Memories of military service: 'It stays with you, whether you like it or not'

By TOM DAVIDSON | Beaver County Times, Pa. | Published: May 22, 2018

BADEN, Pa. – Although he maintains it's the case, there is nothing boring about how David Saras served his country.

Now 86, Saras, of Baden, was a boy of 10 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, hastening the American entrance into World War II. As he grew up, his uncles answered the call to serve; Saras' father wanted to, but was exempted because he had five young children.

But he saw others go, either through enlistment or after receiving "their letters of greetings from the government" – draft notices – "none of them hesitated in going," Saras said.

"I saw what happened to those good men," he said as the memory stirs emotions that have lingered after more than 70 years, and he laments that many of the men who served then never had the chance to visit the war memorials in Washington, D.C. as he has.

"It's an honor to those men and women," Saras said.

That sentiment is fitting this week, as Memorial Day approaches, and people across the nation prepare to honor those who served and didn't come back. It's those people whom Saras feels for and weeps about.

"Freedom doesn't come cheap. Somebody has to pay," he said. "I fly my flags on my flagpole for those that didn't make it back. They didn't enjoy what I got to enjoy. This thing called freedom. I get too emotional – this brings back memories of some pretty nice people."

The story of Saras' own service begins in 1949 after he graduated from Beaver Falls High School. Like his peers, he was 18 and he faced a choice: "Should I get drafted into the Army or would I go into the Marine Corps or would I go to the Navy?"

He decided to enlist in the Navy and went to boot camp after graduation, then chose to become a damage controlman.

"That's a jack-of-all-trades," Saras said.

He was sent on a special assignment to the then-U.S. territory of Alaska. "It wasn't a state at that time," he said, and Saras served in what was termed the "dungaree Navy" of men who did maintenance jobs at places like Kodiak Island.

"I served roughly two-and-a-half years (there)," he said.

He helped to repair ships, landing craft, and did whatever else was asked of him during that time.

They flew around the Aleutions on PBY Catalina flying boats and braved cold winters and bears.

"Some of the fellas would hunt the bears," Saras said.

Before doing so, they were warned that if they engaged a bear, "you better kill it, because they become very mean if they get wounded," Saras said.

Some of the bears they killed were shipped home, and others were mounted in an enlisted men's club where a polar bear was also displayed.

"As far as the weather, it got pretty windy and pretty cold," Saras said.

In 1950, Saras remembered his dad writing him about a big snowstorm in Beaver Falls.

"They were buried in snow, my dad was telling me," Saras said. "I said 'Dad, you think that's deep. You should be up here with me.'"

He moved up the ranks from firemen's apprentice to fireman to third class petty officer.

After his time in Alaska, Saras was sent to San Diego and then received an honorable discharge.

"And basically, that's the end of my boring story as a veteran. That's how I served my country," Saras said. "That's why I personally don't look for recognition. I don't feel I deserve that, not being a combat veteran. Those guys met the enemy up close and personal, they still have bad memories from that. But they're the kind of men and women you never hear from because it brings back memories that stick with you."

He does his part now to listen to other veterans, be it at events or during his visits to the VA Medical Center in Oakland, and he goes out of his way to thank the men and women serving now.

"These youngsters serving our country today are very special. Very, very special youngsters. They're keeping our country safe and when I get the chance to shake their hands, I do that," Saras said.

Whenever he's with a group of veterans and others are around, they're invariably asked if they would serve again, Saras said.

"And we all (say) yes, in a heartbeat," Saras said.

When he was in boot camp, he was asked a similar question: "Would you kill the enemy?"

"To a man (we) said yes we would," Saras said. "I was fortunate. I didn't have to do it. But to preserve freedom, I'd do it again. This country is very special."

After his service, Saras married his wife Jane and they'll mark 61 years on June 1. They have an adult son and daughter, and Saras has been retired for 26 years from Bell of Pennsylvania.

"We've enjoyed every minute of it," he said. "I've seen the good life."

He laments that others who served weren't able to.

"Many of the kids that I grew up with, they never got to see the good life," Saras said. "They never made it back from these things called war. Hopefully, one day, we'll never see war again ... it stays with you (serving in the military) whether you like it or not."

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(c)2018 the Beaver County Times (Beaver, Pa.)
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