2014-01-02 / Local & State

WWII Vet Saluted With Quilt Of Valor

By David Hurst

– Andrew Mikolaj’s eyes have seen a lot in his 93 years.

Given the Johnstown man was part of a 3rd U.S. Army 26th Infantry that fought off Germans along the Rhine River during World War II’s pivotal Battle of the Bulge and dodged bullets marching through Europe under General George S. Patton’s command, Mikolaj said he’s not easily surprised.

But dozens of his family members did just that during a reunion Sunday, presenting him a handstitched quilt of valor – an honor given to veterans whose lives were touched by war.

“This is probably the biggest surprise of my life –

I don’t have too many of them,” Mikolaj said, clutching his patchwork red, white and blue quilt.

The quilt itself was created by the nonprofit Quilt of Valor Foundation, whose quilters have stitched tens of thousands of the blankets since 2005 for men and women who saw wartime combat or were injured at war.

“This quilt is totally unique. There will never be another like it,” his nephew Barry Ritko said moments after the quilt was presented.

Ritko’s wife, Mary Ann, has a sister in the foundation and pushed for the patriotic quilt.

Titled “Starstruck,” it was made by a Florida woman, Terri Smith, this spring, he said.

Mikolaj, who grew up in Cambria City and was drafted to serve his country in 1942, said he was humbled by the gift.

He described his three years of infantry service in the European theater as “just doing what was needed to serve my country ... and come back home.”

“I remember my drill sergeant telling me, `Don’t do what I do. Do what I tell you,’ " he said. “That’s what I did. I did my duty and I followed orders.”

He recalled days meeting Patton face to face and the uneasy days leading up to the Battle of the Bulge.

He remembered Patton as a no-nonsense “gung-ho” leader.

“It was war. Sometimes you took it on the chin and you did your job,” he said, crediting Patton for leading troops to victory.

The Bulge was the worst of times, he said. He recalled risking capture to pass information near German lines to an Army colonel – and weeks of “zigzagging” north, south, east and west to combat German offensives near the Rhine.

The battle lasted nearly a month and claimed more than 20,000 allied soldiers.

“We had to look out from every direction. We were on the fly,” he said.

Mikolaj remained in Europe until December 1945 _ months after Berlin fell and the Nazi’s surrendered.

He returned to Johnstown, where he found work as an electrical foreman for Bethlehem Steel, met his wife, Julia, and raised a family, Barry Ritko said.

“Family means everything to me,” Mikolaj said, surrounded by dozens of family members inside his greatnephew’s Westmont home. “I’m honored they did this for me.”

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