At Pittsburgh Mills, this 93-year-old World War II veteran from Harwick is a celebrity
Springdale Township resident Emilio Saldari considers himself one of the lucky ones.
After all, he was able to walk away from World War II with only minor injuries and live a full life.
At age 93, Saldari will spend Saturday, Veterans Day, feeling thankful and going for a free meal at one of the many restaurants offering them to those who have served.
“Me and my friend, we go to different places,” he said. “Everybody treats us super.”
Saldari is active in veteran events throughout the Pittsburgh area, although many World War II veterans have passed away.
He is about one of around 30,000 World War II veterans in Pennsylvania and around 560,000 in the country, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
“I pray to God every day that I made it to 93,” he said.
About his service
It’s been more than 70 years since Saldari was discharged from the Army, but he recalls the experience without pause.
“I was 18 years old and I got drafted,” he said. “I’d never been away from home.”
He was part of the 106th Infantry Division, known as the Golden Lion, which fought in, among others, the Battle of the Bulge.
His first stop abroad was London. From there, the troops headed to Scotland and then France, where they engaged in their first battle.
“I fought in northern France, the Ardennes forest, the Rhineland and central Europe,” he said. “I was in four major battles.”
Saldari said on Dec. 16, 1944, “all hell broke loose” as they were attacked by Nazis in what would begin the Battle of the Bulge.
“Believe me, that was one hell of a battle,” he said. “We lost a lot of men.”
Saldari was discharged in 1945 and came home to the Alle-Kiski Valley where he met his wife, Ida. They’ve been together ever since.
He worked most of his life in the Alle-Kiski Valley’s coal mines and at Edgewater Steel in Oakmont.
The couple has two children, Harrison District Judge Carolyn Saldari Bengel and Tom Saldari.
Bengel said she sees her dad almost every day.
“Every day is special for us because we’ve had him so long,” she said. “He’s taught us so much over the years.”
Bengel said her dad always told his family he was a millionaire — not because of money, but because of his good health and family.
“That truly means more than any money or any material things that he could have ever had,” she said.
The French government awarded Saldari the “Chevalier” three years ago. The award is part of the French Legion of Honor and considered the French equivalent of a British knight.
A local honor
Saldari captures the hearts of many wherever he goes. He was honored this week by the staff at JCPenney at the Pittsburgh Mills mall. The employees wanted to do something to thank the longtime shopper at the store for his service.
“He was just such a sweet guy,” said Mary Jo Ciacco, assistant manager. “It made you feel like you know him.”
The staff got together and created a gift basket full of snacks and a gift card to the store.
Danielle Bellinotti, JCPenney staff member, made a patriotic wreath for him.
“It’s just an honor to me,” Bellinotti said. “It just warmed my heart.”
Bellinotti said Saldari has “a great spirit.”
Saldari said he was flattered they thought to honor him. He and his wife have shopped at JCPenney for about 60 years.
“I feel great, I feel really great,” he said. “They’ve always treated me wonderful at that store.”
Sharing his story
Saldari has spoken to students from elementary schools through college about his experience serving his country. He tries to educate them about World War II.
“They ask so many questions, you would never believe,” he said. “I try to answer all of them.”
Saldari is known by many simply as “Chummy” or “Chum.” It’s a nickname he got when he was just 6 years old. He had to walk a mile to school and made sure to greet everyone he passed.
“On my way I used to say, ‘hi’ to everybody and they used to say, ‘Oh, you’re really chummy,’ ” he said. “And it stuck with me for all those years.”
He said he tries to live by the golden rule.
“If I can help one person out, I’m satisfied,” he said. “Treat everybody like you want to be treated, and the Lord will take care of you.”
Although serving in the war left Saldari with some unpleasant memories, he’s happy to have served.
“I would go back again, though,” he said. “This is the greatest country in the world.”
Emily Balser is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-226-4680, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @emilybalser.