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Honoring the fallen: Northumberland resident joins WWII veterans group on Normandy visit

Daily Item - 6/6/2024

Jun. 5—Northumberland Borough resident Barbara Spaventa is among a select group comprised of World War II veterans, officials and guest observers who flew into Normandy, France, this week.

The contingent traveled to honor the fallen American heroes who invaded Omaha Beach 80 years ago today, helping stem the tide of German occupation in Western Europe in 1944.

Sponsored by American Airlines and originating in Fort Worth, Texas, the Return to Normandy 80th Anniversary contingent included 68 WWII veterans, five Medal of Honor recipients "and a fantastic team from Old Glory Honor Flight. We had an entire 787-9 Dreamliner all to ourselves," Spaventa said. "The memories that have already been made on this trip will last a lifetime."

Capt. Robert Hartline, of Reading, asked Spaventa to accompany him as his guardian traveler. Hartline is a Marine and the second youngest Naval aviator in the war. He missed being the youngest by two days to George H.W. Bush.

"The average age of the veterans we are traveling with is 102," Spaventa said in a text sent from France. "The youngest is 96; the oldest, 107.

"Bob was a fighter pilot in the Pacific and flew Corsairs, Wildcats, Hellcats, and the TBM Avenger planes."

Hartline will be celebrating his 100th birthday on this trip on Saturday. Charles Brooking from Bloomsburg is also on the trip with his son Chuck Brooking. Charlie was on a patrol, torpedo or PT boat in the war.

"It has been a memorable experience for all those in attendance," Spaventa said. "Visiting those places of hallowed ground holds many memories for those in attendance. The reverence and appreciation that the people of France have shown to our men has been remarkable."

Spaventa quoted WWII Gen. Omar Bradley, who said "Bravery is the capacity to perform properly, even when scared half to death."

"And those men on June 6, 1944, held true to that motto," Spaventa said.

On Wednesday, the tour group visited Utah Beach for another ceremony, followed by Sainte-Mere-Eglise and a parade of WWII veterans.

The official D-Day ceremony will be held today at Normandy American Cemetery, Spaventa said.

President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron, King Charles, and other dignitaries are expected Thursday.

"We all need special security clearance," Spaventa said.

A total of 4,414 Allied troops were killed on D-Day, including 2,501 Americans. More than 5,000 were wounded. Among the wounded was Kulpmont resident John P. Lesko, 28, who became a missing casualty when the hospital ship that was returning him to safety was sunk.

He never came backLesko is among the Americans buried or memorialized at Tablets of the Missing, Normandy American Cemetery Colleville-sur-Mer, France, David Shinskie, of Kulpmont American Legion Post 231, said.

"He never came back," Shinskie said.

Shinskie has been researching Lesko's background, to help honor Lesko's sacrifice at a very young age. He enlisted in the Army as an infantryman on Feb. 10, 1942, in Harrisburg.

Lesko rose to private first class in Company A, 502d Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 101st Airborne, Shinskie said. The regiment shipped to London in 1943, where they trained for the Normandy invasion. On June 5, 1943, the 502nd headed for Normandy. They aimed to land behind enemy lines to secure two causeways leading inland from Utah Beach.

Lesko survived the D-Day airborne drop but suffered enemy wounds that required his evacuation. He was killed in action on June 6, when the hospital ship evacuating him to England hit a mine and sank in the English Channel. His remains were never recovered. "He was truly a hero," Shinskie said.

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