NEW CUMBERLAND - Fifty-five of them survived World War II. That was reason enough to celebrate, so, in 1955, 10 years after the war's end, the New Cumberland area veterans met to form the Last Man's Club.
They had cheated death once-maybe many times-so why not give their club a humorous name with a wry nod to the inevitable? Who, indeed, would be the last man?
On Sunday, Veterans Day, the last four men will once again gather at the New Cumberland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3526 to conduct the business of the Last Man's Club-an invocation, a dinner, a toast to their departed comrades and the election of officers.
Kenneth “Pat” Kessel, 84, of New Manchester, reviews the toast to departed comrades that is read every Veterans Day at the Last Man’s Club meeting. Only four club members are left, and they will meet at 6 p.m. Sunday at the New Cumberland Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 3526. (Photo by Stephen Huba)
"Which isn't too tough with four guys," said Kenneth "Pat" Kessel, 84, of New Manchester.
Even though Kessel is the youngest of the four remaining members of the Last Man's Club, he looks at a picture from the 2011 club meeting and exclaims, "God, I look old. I am old."
Kessel served on the U.S.S. General A.E. Anderson, a troop transport ship that operated in the Pacific, in the waning days of World War II. "We carried guys wherever they needed them," he said.
Kessel, a 1945 graduate of New Cumberland High School, went on to work at Weirton Steel for 33 years, retiring as a turn supervisor in strip steel.
Currently secretary-treasurer, Kessel has only gratitude for the fact that he and his fellow remaining club members have lived this long - long enough to see yet another Veterans Day.
"I feel fortunate and surprised that I'm still with them," he said. "I never dreamed I would be among the last four. You never think you're as old as you are."
At 92, John Kuzio, of New Cumberland, is the oldest member of the club. Kuzio served in the Pacific theater as a staff sergeant with the Army Air Force Ordnance Corps.
Just 11 days before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Kuzio enlisted at a recruiting office in Steubenville. His intentions were to stay in the military one year and then go to college, but Pearl Harbor changed all that.
Kuzio reported for duty the day after Christmas 1941 and left for what he thought was going to be basic training with the 707th Ordnance Battalion in Charlotte, N.C. Instead, he was shipped out almost immediately, departing for Australia from a port in San Francisco.
Kuzio got promoted to staff sergeant and was responsible for .30- and .50-caliber machine guns and parts, serving for 33 months in New Guinea. He made landings in Port Moresby, Milne Bay, Wewak, Buna, Lae, Hollandia and elsewhere in New Guinea.
"I was fortunate and lucky that I didn't get a bullet in the South Pacific," he said.
After the war, Kuzio went to the University of Pittsburgh on the GI Bill, earning a degree in social studies. His career in education was spent teaching and coaching at New Cumberland High School.
Joining Kessel and Kuzio at 6 p.m. Sunday will be Charles Byrne, 85, of New Cumberland, and club president Don King, 86, of Crystal River, Fla., formerly of Toronto, Ohio.
Byrne was stationed with the Army in Alaska during World War II, and King served as a gunner's mate, third class, in the Navy in the Pacific.
In addition to the four men, a fifth place will be set in honor of all those club members who are deceased. The most recent member to have died is Chester "Chet" Spilecki, 83, of New Cumberland, who died in January 2009, about two months after attending his last Last Man's Club meeting.
The club was founded in 1955, Kuzio said, because a lot of the men already knew each other from socializing at the VFW. The occasion of the first meeting, held at the Fort Pitt Inn, was the 1955 football game between West Virginia University and the University of Pittsburgh.
Since then, meetings have been held at venues in Weirton, Steubenville, East Liverpool and elsewhere. At one time, when the club was large, two to three cooks were needed to prepare the meal, and club dues covered the cost of meal preparation.
A photo believed to be taken a year after the club formed shows 45 members in a group pose, most of them wearing suits and ties. Kuzio, then 36, can be seen with a big grin on his face, kneeling in the front row and shaking the hand of Joe Hoder, the man next to him.
"I miss all those guys, and I knew them all," Kuzio said.
The club has a ritual for the member who is the last man standing. It requires him to make a toast with a 1955 bottle of French champagne the club has kept in storage.
"He is to pour a glass of champagne and make a toast to his fallen comrades," Kessel said, "and that's the end of it, 'cause he's the last man. I tell you what - if I'm the last man, I'm not drinking from that bottle."
That's because over the years the club has kept the champagne in storage, the quantity in the bottle has gone down.
"Everybody always wondered who was going to drink the magnum of champagne that was left," Kuzio said. "I used to kid that I'm going to be the last one, but I don't think there will be any champagne left."