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Old soldiers prepare for a fading away

A Southwest Phila. VFW post faces what could be its final Memorial Day commemoration.

The big Memorial Day observance at the Anthony and Harry Faustino VFW Post 6621 in Southwest Philadelphia once drew 50 veterans, women's auxiliary members, and their families to a prayer ceremony, a parade to Mass at the now-closed Our Lady of Loreto Catholic Church, and a party with games, prizes and hot dogs for the young ones.

But this morning's modest Memorial Day ceremony may be the post's last.

Commandant Frank Gagliardi and Ralph Christy, the quartermaster, will mark the day by bringing the post's big wreaths decorated with flags and red-white-and-blue plastic flowers down from the second-floor meeting room and placing them in front of a soldiers memorial across the street.

The post, which World War II veterans established on April 17, 1946, and which once had more than 130 members, has dwindled to 18. Most, like Gagliardi and Christy, are older than 80. And they have decided to sell the building at 61st Street and Grays Avenue where they used to gather for pinochle and gin rummy and to drink and socialize at the 18-stool bar.

"Right now, I've been doing all the work," said Gagliardi, a retired Westinghouse engineer who still lives next door - in the house where he was born - and who takes care of the post. "I can't do it much any more. I'll be 85.

"At least I can go up and down the stairs," he added with a laugh.

"There are only three or four of us in the area," said Christy, a retired hospital food-service director who worked at Aramark for 38 years and who now lives in Clifton Heights. "It's a shame, but it's the way life goes. You can't stick around forever."

The club's demise reflects the shrinking population of World War II veterans nationwide. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has estimated that of the 16 million men and women who served in the war, 2.8 million were alive in September, including 160,953 in Pennsylvania and 82,566 in New Jersey.

By this September, the department projects the number of veterans will have dropped to 141,265 in Pennsylvania and 72,065 in New Jersey.

The Faustino VFW Post is named for two first cousins from the Southwest Philadelphia neighborhood who died during World War II.

Army Pfc. Harry F. Faustino, a former manager of a Gray's Ferry nightclub, was wounded four times during the 10 months he spent in Europe in 1944 and 1945, before he was killed in France on March 15, 1945, according to newspaper accounts from the time. He was 27 and had been awarded the Purple Heart with three oak leaf clusters and the Silver Star. The clippings did not provide information about Anthony Faustino's death.

Gagliardi, who enlisted in the Army in March 1943, became a platoon staff sergeant. By the time he was discharged in September 1945 he had been awarded a Bronze Service Star for each of the five major campaigns fought in Europe, a Silver Star, a Purple Heart with two oak leaf clusters, and a Combat Infantry Badge.

Christy, who has known Gagliardi since they were boys together on 61st Street, served in the U.S. Navy as a first-class commissary steward for the Navy's amphibious forces in Europe.

Although the post membership roster included some veterans from the Korean War and a few from the Vietnam War, Christy and Gagliardi said most members were World War II vets. Their numbers started to decline in the 1980s and early 1990s.

"We didn't get any of the Gulf War veterans," Gagliardi said. "From that point on, we started to lose membership. When I say lose - from death."

The building is not listed with a real estate agent, but he said that people know it's available.

After the post bought the former sandwich shop for $11,000 in the 1950s, he said substantial renovations were made, including putting in tile bathrooms, wood paneling and drop ceilings, and installing a custom-made bar.

Gagliardi, who spent 37 years designing steam turbines at Westinghouse's plant in Essington, drew up the plans.

During a tour yesterday, he pointed out the jukebox in the bar. It still works, he said. And though it has some songs from more recent decades, including 1976's "Disco Inferno" by the Trammps and the Spinners' 1980 version of "Working My Way Back to You," the play list leans toward classics by Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.

Gagliardi reached into a closet and carefully unfurled the post's blue-and-gold banner with golden fringe.

"This is our flag," he said. "It's a beautiful flag. We had this one made. I forget how many hundreds of dollars [it cost]. We did everything right."

He added: "I don't know what we're going to do with this stuff. You spend a lot of money on it, but nobody wants it."

Another post, he said, has expressed interest in the soldiers memorial.

"We're not the first veterans club that closed down," Gagliardi observed. "I feel bad, but it happens."