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Area honors nation's veterans

November 12, 1998|By DON AINES

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Swept up in the tide of mankind's greatest conflict, Dr. Alfred Tonolo lent his hands to the creation of a small monument to peace.

A lieutenant in the Bersaglieri, an elite Italian army unit, Tonolo was captured by the Allies on May 11, 1943, in the last days of the North African campaign. He spent the next 2 1/2 years as a prisoner of war at Letterkenny Army Depot.

Tonolo was one of 22 Italian officers and 1,200 enlisted men who helped build warehouses and other facilities. They also built the depot chapel, to which he returned Wednesday for a Veterans Day service offered by the United Churches of the Chambersburg Area and the Joint Veterans' Council of Chambersburg.

"War brings out the best and the worst in mankind. ... This chapel represents the best of both sides in that conflict," he told about 50 people who had gathered for the service.

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Brought to Pennsylvania as a prisoner, Tonolo made it his home. Today he lives in Berwick, Pa., and is a professor emeritus of Italian and Spanish at Bloomsburg University.

"We knew that in every square inch of Italy there was fighting," he said.

The officers tried to maintain the morale of the other POWs with sports and other activities, but despair sometimes got the upper hand.

Tonolo recalled one prisoner who attempted suicide upon learning his wife had died in Italy. Col. Ray M. Hare, the depot commander in 1944-45, put the despondent man in charge of building the chapel, giving him a reason to live.

"Faith made it possible to erect this temple that still shines," Tonolo said. He urged that it be named a Pennsylvania historical site.

Tonolo, who saw Adolf Hitler when his gymnastics team went to Germany to compete in 1937, noted the Italians considered themselves lucky to be held in the United States. With so many Italians having emigrated to America, many soldiers were unhappy to find themselves allied with the Nazis.

The depot continues to go through downsizing, but the chapel has found a champion in the United Churches. The Rev. Jeffrey Roth, chairman of the group's Letterkenny Chapel Complex Task Force, said the Army will turn over the chapel to the Letterkenny Industrial Development Authority later this month.

The authority eventually will give the chapel to the church group, along with three acres of land that includes a fitness center.

Roth said the fitness center should help support the upkeep of the chapel as part of the depot becomes a civilian industrial park.

For Elsie Overcash of Chambersburg the chapel holds different memories. The 19,000-acre depot was made up of farms the War Department bought at the beginning of the war. Her father John Schaeffer owned one of them.

The chapel was built from stones harvested from farmhouses, barns and mills and that belonged to the same families for generations.

"John, your mill will live on," his brother Robert told him when he learned its stones would be used for the chapel.

With the threat of military action against Iraq looming on this Veterans Day, the offering collected at the service will be used for Red Cross holiday packages for U.S. troops stationed in Bosnia and Saudi Arabia.

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