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4/18/2013 9:36:00 AM Column: A POW's story - not to be missed
Craig Sterrett News Editor
Sometimes I have great regrets. For one, I never met Steve Pattelli. After our news staff recovered from the election, I was going to assign a reporter to do a story on a U.S. Army Air Corps World War II veteran who was shot down and had an unimaginably grueling ordeal as one of the Nazis’ prisoners of war. But Pattelli died Tuesday in the Illinois Veterans Home at La Salle. A couple of weeks ago, a volunteer who brings a golden retriever to the home to soothe or entertain the veterans came to the office to provide information. He figured Pattelli, at 95, was among the oldest living survivors of the German Stalags. That volunteer, Patrick Fitzpatrick, admired Pattelli for a lot of reasons. He was a family man, and was appreciated by his family and his wife of 66 years, Mary. “Every day his children visit him,” Fitzpatrick said. His grandson, Chris Karun, said after retiring from Westclox, Steve, who lived in Peru most of his adult life, enjoyed the freedom of retirement and went fishing on the Illinois River daily. Friends would find him and they’d eat lunch or have a beer. He’d visit with other fishermen to see how they were doing. Twice he saved people from drowning, Karun said. Once, an angler fell off a ledge at Starved Rock into the dangerous undertow. Steve had the victim grab the end of a fishing rod; he handed that rod to another angler and then got a rope to finish the rescue. Fitzpatrick saw signs that Pattelli, at 95, still relished the freedoms he had. He said when he’d go to visit, Steve would ask him, “Take me for a ride” (pushing the wheelchair), and then he’d occasionally recount stories. “If you catch him on a good day, he’s a whippersnapper … talkative,” Fitzpatrick said this spring. Four Pattelli brothers served during the war, including Emil, Carlo and Quinto, according to an old news clipping. Fitzpatrick retold a story from Pattelli’s daughter, Olivia Karun, that Quinto had had a premonition in 1944 when Steve was shot down. For an unknown reason, he’d yelled out “Jump Steve!” He had flown three bombing missions over Germany and was on a fourth when the bomber got shot down. A niece, Lauren Peradotti, learned that a “civilian land watch” took all of his belongings and was going to hang him when a German officer on a motorcycle saved him. Though his life was spared, he was taken to a German prison camp, Stalag Luft 4 in Pomerania (now Tychow, Poland). Near the end of the war, February 1945, 8,000 men of the beleaguered and neglected camp set out on the “Black March.” The prisoners were given the few remaining Red Cross parcels, and, were then herded, zigzagging for 86 days, before arriving at Stalag 357, according to online accounts. Karun said his grandfather didn’t talk about it much, but if prisoners fell down or fell behind, a guard would go back, there would be a gunshot, and the guard would come back alone. Fitzpatrick learned that, like many of the prisoners, Pattelli looked out for the weaker men. He said he was told by Pattelli that there was one man who was emaciated, and Pattelli would boil and provide water for him each day. Fitzpatrick said Pattelli made three lifelong friends from the Stalags: Chester Mis of La Salle, who died in May 2002; Eddie Kwit of DePue, who died in June 2006; and Steve Petz of Michigan. Karun said his father picked up on several languages — from German and Italian enemies and from Poles and other allies — during his 11 months as a POW. Karun said his grandfather would join conversations with Chicago Poles who were fishing at the river. Fitzpatrick said Pattelli’s No. 1 comment about prison camp was, “It was a good place to lose weight.” Even the Germans did not have much to eat, and many POWs died of horrific diseases or starved during the march. Peradotti once wrote that Steve thought his greatest accomplishment “was living a clean life.” Fitzpatrick said that reminds him of a line from the film, “Saving Private Ryan:” — “Tell me I have led a good life.” Fitzpatrick and Pattelli’s family would say he definitely did.
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