Congresswoman Chellie Pingree on Monday presents Cape Elizabeth resident Tony Ornatek with replacements of the medals his father, Staff Sgt. Anthony A. Ornatek, earned during World War II. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

PORTLAND — Tony Ornatek knew his late father served in World War II, but, like many in the Greatest Generation, Anthony A. Ornatek did not talk a lot about what he experienced during the war.

A ceremony held at the University of Southern Maine Monday brought part of Ornatek’s father’s story to light.

Congresswoman Chellie Pingree presented Ornatek and members of his family with replacements of the medals Anthony Ornatek earned during his WWII service.

“He probably received these, but I never saw them,” Ornatek, a Cape Elizabeth resident, said at a brief ceremony Nov. 4 at the University of Southern Maine. “He never talked about the war like most of the GIs who were in a similar situation.”

The family of Anthony Ornatek was presented Monday with replacements of his Army Good Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

Ornatek said he was thrilled to receive copies of his father’s awards, the Army’s Good Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal and World War II Victory Medal.

“For me this is closure. We have a piece of him now and we will have it forever,” he said.

Peter Ornatek traveled from Minnesota to be on hand for the ceremony honoring his father. “It was very important for me to be here,” he said.

The medals, he said, will be shared with each of Ornatek’s five children before eventually being displayed at his brother’s home in Cape Elizabeth.

“I can’t thank you enough for what you and your staff did,” Tony Ornatek told Pingree just prior to the medal ceremony. “My whole family appreciates this.”

He said he has been able to piece together some of his father’s story during the war. Anthony Ornatek began his service in the U.S. Army in the fall of 1942.

On Dec. 30, 1943, the staff sergeant was the waist gunner on a B-17 bomber making its way back to Great Britain when it was shot down by a German fighter plane near Calais in Nazi-occupied northern France. The B-17 lost three of its four engines, but most of the crew survived and were taken in by a French farmer. The farmer gave his father and his crew members new clothes and they were taken by bicycle to the nearest village. His father was able to survive and avoid detection by the Nazis by bouncing from family to family, he said.

“Every so often he had to move so the Nazis wouldn’t learn they were being protected in the area,” Ornatek said.

Eventually, Anthony Ornatek was able to make his way south to Paris where he was sheltered in an apartment for two months until, “using dead-reckoning, a compass and a map, he eventually made it to Switzerland,” he said.

Tony Ornatek shares a story about his father’s journey from being shot down in Nazi-occupied France to finding safety in Switzerland during World War II as Congresswoman Chellie Pingree looks on. Michael Kelley / The Forecaster

His grandmother Stella received a telegram in mid-January alerting her that her son had been reported missing in action on Dec. 30. She received no more information until May when a second telegram arrived, this one from her son announcing he was safe in Switzerland.

“I cannot imagine the anxiety and fear he had for those four months,” Tony Ornatek said at the medal ceremony.

His father lived in Chicago after the war. He died on May 7, 1985.

Pingree’s stop at the University of Southern Maine also included training for people to learn how they can help capture the stories of veterans like Ornatek through the Library of Congress’ Veterans History Project. The project was created by Congress in 2001 to “give veterans a platform to share and preserve their personal narratives about their time in uniform and help Americans understand military service and its importance to our country’s history,” according to  Pingree’s office.

The project is open to all veterans who have served since World War I.

Pingree said she was interested in bringing the Veterans History Project to the university to make sure Mainers’ military service is not forgotten.

“This has the potential to bring history alive in a way you don’t see in a book,” she said after the ceremony.

Pingree said she has been able to participate in many medal ceremonies like the one held posthumously for Ornatek.

“We have seen so many emotional moments and happy moments. It is been such an honor to participate,” she said.

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