By Mike Strasser, Fort Drum Garrison Public AffairsJune 21, 2019
FORT DRUM, N.Y. (June 21, 2019) -- "What a distinguished group," Don Waful exclaimed when he saw the group of 1st Brigade Combat Team Soldiers who were awaiting his visit to their headquarters. "The United States Army, God love you all!"
Waful may be 103 years old, but he still moves with a purpose - the way he was taught when he began his Army career in 1941. He had just held court at the 1st BCT dining facility, where he regaled Soldiers with stories from his remarkable life. Now, he took a seat in the center of the room and soon had everyone laughing.
"Some of my happiest days were in the Army ... also some of my darkest," he said with a smile. "But so many lovely ones and great memories about all of you guys and gals."
Waful had earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in political science from Syracuse University and was working for the United Way in 1941. Being of draft age, Waful decided to enlist on his own terms, and he found himself briefly stationed at Fort Drum - at that time known as Pine Camp.
"You won't believe this, but with my training in international relations and a master's degree, they sent me to Fort Knox (Kentucky) to be a tank mechanic," Waful said.
While there, Waful learned about an opportunity to attend Officer Candidate School. During the 12-week course, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed everything. He said that 45 of the course graduates, himself included, were assigned to the 1st Armored Division. As a tank platoon commander for headquarters company, Waful and his unit boarded the Queen Mary in 1942 to England, and then traveled to Belfast, Ireland, on smaller boats.
This was where Waful met his future wife, Olga "Cassie" Casciolini, an Army nurse from 5th General Hospital and a native of Boston, Massachusetts. Waful was playing trombone with a regimental dance band at a social for medical personnel when he saw Cassie on the dance floor. Waful left the stage and asked a nurse he knew to introduce him to Cassie. They danced, and Waful never rejoined his bandmates that night.
"Incidentally, the nurses when they left for overseas were told to pack a party dress so if they had social times they wouldn't have just their Army uniform to wear," he said.
They dated for three weeks before Waful proposed to her.
"And she said yes, believe it or not," he said. "I courted her in Ireland for two months, and then I left for the wars. I was leaving, I didn't know where I was going or when I was going to be back. But she said 'I will wait for you.'"
They entered the war in North Africa, but the campaign would be short-lived for Waful and his platoon. They were on a mission about 12 miles away from their headquarters in Tunisia when they encountered a German tank company and were taken prisoner. Waful would spend the next three years - until victory in Europe was declared - surviving in camps in Italy, Poland and Germany.
Waful said that Cassie had helped to establish an emergency hospital in Normandy, France, a month after D-Day, and she also provided care during the Battle of the Bulge, where she was wounded when a bomb exploded near her hospital.
The couple reunited in May 1945 in Paluel, France, and they were married two days later by a local pastor, with the help of a translator.
"She said she would wait for me, and she did," Waful, said proudly, and to applause. "It lasted 56 years. Happy times, two sons, one grandson. And I know she's waiting for me in heaven. Waiting for me, again."
Then, looking at Col. Shane Morgan, 1st BCT commander, he asked: "You got anything to top that?"
Waful then shared some memories of his time after the war, when he served as president of the Syracuse Chiefs baseball team for 35 years. The Triple A ball club later became the Washington Nationals affiliate and, today, is the Syracuse Mets.
Morgan said that he was introduced to Waful through Jason Smorol, Syracuse Mets general manager, when the 1st BCT provided a color guard for Armed Forces Day two years ago.
Morgan presented Waful with a certificate naming him as an honorary member of the 1st Brigade Combat Team.
"Mr. Waful's life story highlights how one Soldier persevered through the hardships of being a prisoner of war, never accepting defeat, and showing remarkable resiliency to live life to the fullest. He is certainly a man to be admired, and we are proud to have him here today to share his story with us."
An oral history with Don Waful, recorded in 2016, is available online at https://vimeo.com/196009765.