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Packed Crowd Hears Stories of ‘McKeesport 23’

Monument to city’s Vietnam casualties rededicated at Heritage Center

By Jason Togyer
The Tube City Almanac
May 13, 2023
Posted in: McKeesport and Region News

Janet and Barry Wagner of White Oak examine the monument to the McKeesport 23 following Saturday’s rededication ceremony on the lawn of McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center. Wagner’s first husband, U.S. Army Capt. Terry Martell, is one of the local soldiers killed in action in Vietnam whose name appears on the tablet. (Tube City Almanac photo)

U.S. Army Pfc. Denny Pliska was engaged to be married to his girlfriend just a few days before he was deployed to Vietnam. He was saving his combat pay to buy a Corvette when he got back to McKeesport.

Pliska didn’t make it home. He was killed in action only six days after fellow Army Pfc. Mike Nemchick — who, like Pliska, was an alumnus of McKeesport Vocational High School — also became a casualty of the Vietnam War.

Nemchick, said Joe Hoffman, former White Oak police chief, had planned to go to college on the GI Bill when he returned to McKeesport. He wanted to become a physical education teacher, Hoffman said, and work with Sam LaRosa at the McKeesport Boys Club. Nemchick, who was killed by a sniper on Feb. 22, 1966, never got the chance.

Those were just two of the stories of the McKeesport 23 — former city residents who were killed in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1971 — that Hoffman shared on Saturday during a ceremony rededicating a monument in their memory.

A standing-room only crowd that included veterans, family members and childhood friends of the city’s 23 Vietnam casualties attended Saturday’s ceremony. (Tube City Almanac photo)

More than 300 people — many of them relatives or childhood friends of the McKeesport 23 — overflowed the Boycott Room at McKeesport Regional History & Heritage Center in Renziehausen Park to hear Hoffman tell their stories.

Air Force Junior ROTC cadets from McKeesport Area High School served as color guard and the Rev. William Meekins Jr., lead pastor of the McKeesport Area Shared Ministry of the United Methodist Church, offered the invocation.

City Administrator Tom Maglicco, a U.S. Army veteran of the U.S.-Iraq War, opened Saturday’s event. Jennifer Vertullo, vice president of the Heritage Center board, and McKeesport Mayor Michael Cherepko also spoke, along with Donn Nemchick, a U.S. Navy veteran and cousin of Michael Nemchick.

Author Dale Saller of Bethel Park, who has written a history of the McKeesport 23 called “Did You Know That Boy,” read a poem he composed.

The monument, which lists the names, branch of service and date of death of each of the 23 men, was erected in 2017 in a courtyard at McKeesport Area High School. Hoffman, one of the volunteers who has kept the stories of the McKeesport 23 alive, said the tablet was relocated to the grounds of the Heritage Center with the help of Cherepko, Maglicco and Striffler Family Funeral Homes to make it more accessible to the public.

An empty pair of boots and discarded dog-tags waited Saturday in front of the McKeesport 23 monument. (Tube City Almanac photo)

The McKeesport 23 tablet replaced an older memorial that was originally placed at the McKeesport Boys Club, now the LaRosa Youth Club, in 1966 in memory of five McKeesport residents who had died in Vietnam.

Hoffman and other volunteers believe that Vietnam memorial was the first ever erected in the United States — more than eight years before the conflict ended.

By 1969, another six former McKeesport Boys Club members died in Vietnam and had their names added to the table.

One of the stories Hoffman told was that of Army Pvt. Jimmy Brooks Jr., who was still in high school when he received his draft notice. “Jimmy’s mother told us other kids received deferments in college, ‘but my son was drafted out of high school,’” Hoffman said. “She tried to talk to people (about a deferment), but no one would listen.”

One Sunday morning, as Brooks’ mother was getting ready for church, she saw a McKeesport police officer and an Army officer in uniform walking to the house, Hoffman said. “She told us she dropped to her knees and started crying, and that she had cried ‘in her heart’ every day since,” he said.

Some of the McKeesport 23 were teen-aged draftees, like Brooks, Hoffman said. Others included career non-commissioned officers and officers, like 1st Lt. Mike Arnovitz, a University of Pennsylvania graduate who was pursuing a Ph.D.

On Aug. 30, 1969, Arnovitz was leading a patrol of U.S. and Vietnamese soldiers when one of the troops was seriously injured. Arnovitz was guiding a medical helicopter to a landing site when he was cut down by a sniper, Hoffman said.

“He knowingly exposed (his position) to the enemy” to save the Vietnamese soldier’s life, Hoffman said.

President Nixon awarded the Silver Star to Arnovitz, posthumously.

Names on the McKeesport 23 memorial include:

Pfc. Norman Wallace “Boots” Johnson, U.S. Army
Pfc. Michael Nemchick, U.S. Army
Pfc. Michael Dennis Pliska, U.S. Army
Pfc. James Francis Brooks Jr., U.S. Army
Staff Sgt. Thomas John Winklevoss, U.S. Army
Pfc. Tyrone Gregory Burse, U.S. Army
Pfc. James West, U.S. Marine Corps
Staff Sgt. David Lloyd George Moser, U.S. Marine Corps
Lance Cpl. Gregory Francis Popowitz, U.S. Marine Corps
Spc. Curtis Taylor Gay, U.S. Army
Lance Cpl. Thomas James Sweeney, U.S. Marine Corps
Pfc. Louis Howard Huff II, U.S. Marine Corps
Maj. Jack Claire Plumb, U.S. Air Force
Spc. John Alan Germek Jr., U.S. Army
Spc. James Robert Long, U.S. Army
Pfc. Tibor Sotak, U.S. Army
Petty Officer 2nd Class Patrick McNelis, U.S. Navy
Gunnery Sgt. Raymond Gibel, U.S. Marine Corps
1st Lt. Richard Michael Arnovitz, U.S. Army
Pfc. Kenneth Jordan Kline, U.S. Army
1st Sgt. Donald Robert Donaldson, U.S. Army
Capt. Terry Jack Martell, U.S. Army
Spc. Vincent Edward Galka, U.S. Army

All photos: Special to Tube City Almanac

Originally published May 13, 2023.

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