Childhood pals rally for Vietnam vet’s honor

When his old crew realized that Peter Wiesneifski’s name was missing from the Van Nest Vietnam memorial, they jumped on the case.

Wiesneifski, known back then as Pete, was killed in South Vietnam on February 26, 1970. This past Memorial Day, however, Al Farago noticed the absence of his friend’s name on Van Nest’s Vietnam memorial.

“This thing had to have been just an oversight, that’s all,” said George DeGasperis, who grew up with Pete and was his classmate at St. Dominic School. George and his friends, twin brothers Robert and Richard Bertorelli, graduated from the grammar school in 1964, a year after Pete.

The three friends, along with Mike Patrona, who was Pete’s year, met on Monday, September 20 to remember Pete and discuss the memorial issue. It was an emotional gathering.

“We’ve known about this for many years,” explained Richard, “but we never did anything about it. It would come up in conversation, but like everything else, it would get dropped.”

Richard and Robert had a family place upstate in Duchess County when they were growing up, and the men fondly remembered a big ski trip that they took in the winter of 1969. At that time, Pete had already served a couple months with the Army, and was on brief leave. He had just received his orders to go to Vietnam. George pointed out that back then, there was a rule that the last surviving son of a family did not have to go. Pete could have at least tried to avoid Vietnam, he pointed out.

“There was snow all around,” remembered Richard, “and Pete said to me ‘Boy, if I stayed here they would never find me.’ I said, ‘Please, Peter, stay. Be my guest.’ But he didn’t.”

Mike remembered Pete as a great basketball player and said that as his neighbor, he knew Pete since he was five years old. He recalled the day someone told the boys that Pete had died. “We were in the gym, and when we heard, George was in tears.”

Robert said he remembered going home and, after seeing Pete’s golf clubs in his room, falling down on the bed.

“He was not a soldier, not that type of individual,” said Richard. “I never knew him to have a girlfriend, he never had a car. There are so many things he didn’t get to experience.”

The men also examined a post that DeGasperis found on the web from April 28, 2005. The post is on a message board at thewall-usa.com, and is from Vinnie Ruggiero, who graduated from St. Dom as well and passed away in May 2010.

“I went to grammar school with Peter in the Bronx,” Ruggiero had written on the site. “I’m now 56 and also a Vietnam-era vet, and there are too many people who don’t appreciate what we did for our country. Rest in peace, you are a hero to me.”

George found out about the plan to get Pete’s name added when he ran into Joe Bombace, another St. Dom classmate from the class of 1965, at a Frankie Avalon concert a couple weeks ago.

“We told Joe, once you get a date that they’re going to do this thing, we want to be there and get every single person in the neighborhood there,” said George. “We want to do something for Pete in this area, something that will last.”

According to Bombace, who has taken a leadership role in the process, it is moving fast. Bombace said that Pete’s sister, Kathleen, is in full support.

“Those guys from ‘64 and ‘63 were like my brothers,” he added. “Doing something like this, coming together 45 years after we graduated from grammar school, it’s just like the old days. Georgie, the Bertorelli brothers, those are the Van Nest guys. Whether it was sports, or projects in the library, or fundraising, this is the way we used to get things done.”

Richard Vitacco, who runs the upkeep of the memorial, said that he has been in contact with the Parks Department and submitted all the necessary paperwork. At this point, they’re just waiting to hear back.

“There is definitely room to add a name,” said Vitacco.

Eileen Smith, secretary to Bronx Parks Commissioner Hector Aponte, said that all the appropriate letters have come in and Aponte has brought them to Comissioner Adrian Benepe for review.

Now, a community waits to honor its fallen friend.

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