John Swiderski, 1943, Iceland, photo courtesy of Catherine Csencsits.

In my years writing columns, I have found many interesting stories in my own neighborhood. For example, I wrote a series on two World War II veterans, one who was a German prisoner of war and another was a soldier who helped liberate a prison camp and saw the results of the Holocaust.

My neighbor Mrs. Catherine Csencsitz shared some interesting memories of her parents during World War II. They resided in the coal community of Nanticoke, Pa. A number of family members worked in the anthracite mining industry.

A few years ago, we drove through Nanticoke and, as usual, spoke to a number of residents at a local restaurant. Today, the city has a population of 10,465. The city peaked in population at 27,000 when coal collieries dotted the area. Many of her family worked for Glen Alden Coal. One breaker, the Truesdale, had 1,700 employees.

The Delaware-Lackawanna Railroad moved coal around the clock. It even constructed company homes called Concrete City. All the homes were entirely constructed with concrete. Today, it is a ghost city. All the buildings have been abandoned.

Nanticoke is a pleasant city and home to Luzerne Community College. Mining is no longer a major employer, as the mines and collieries have closed.

Both grandfathers of Catherine were employed in the mining industry. Her maternal grandfather, John Wadzinski, as a young man worked for Glen Alden Coal. After a period of time, he was promoted to fire boss. His responsibilities were to check on miners and laborers so the company knew how many miners were in the mine and in what section they were working.

After a few years in the mines, John decided to open a tavern in Nanticoke. Called the White Owl Cafe, it was a gathering spot for many thirsty miners. The business was very successful. John’s father, George Wadzinski, a Pennsylvania Railroad employee, died in an accident, leaving a wife and eight children.

Son Frank had a very interesting career. An outstanding student at Nanticoke High School, he graduated from Temple University with a degree in pharmacy in 1932 during the Great Depression. He would serve his community for 52 years in his Walnut Street pharmacy.

Catherine’s paternal grandfather, Michael Swiderski, was born in Poznan, Poland. Michael and fellow immigrants came to America in search of opportunity and employment. Large numbers settled in Nanticoke and the hard coal regions of Pennsylvania. More than 300 coal breakers processed coal around the clock, producing millions of tons of coal.

Early conditions were harsh, dating back to the “Molly Maguires,” who used violence to improve conditions. Some miners organized unions, the most famous of which was the United Mine Workers of America, headed by John L. Lewis. Mr. Swiderski joined the UMWA and was active in union affairs, legally bargaining for fair wages and safe working conditions.

Cathy’s father, John, left Nanticoke High School to join the workforce and eventually became a bus driver for Nanticoke Transportation. The United States was on the brink of war in 1940, so the young man from Nanticoke stepped forward and enlisted in the U.S. Army in October 1940. Inducted at Wilkes-Barre, he received basic training at Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

One cold morning, he boarded a troop ship for a long, rough voyage. He wondered, “Where are we going?” When he entered the port, he wondered, “Where are we? Oh, my, this is Iceland, in the North Atlantic. Why are we here?”

John was surprised the island was not a total iceberg. It actually was relatively warm in the winter. “The capital was Reykjavik. We couldn’t spell it.”

His 5th Army engineering unit was there to construct and maintain facilities for supply and troop support for the war in Europe.

There were already thousands of British troops on the island. They feared Germany would seize the country for a submarine base against England.

This island once was under the control of Denmark. Iceland would play an important role in World War II.

In two weeks: Getting ready for D-Day.


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