“We cannot afford to conceal hatred and narrow-mindedness under the name of patriotism. Our own rights we must and will have; these can never be safe unless our neighbor’s rights are likewise secure.”  (William “Bill” Laux from his winning essay in 1942, “Why America Must Win This War”)

In 1942, just a few months after America was thrust into World War II, the Philadelphia Junior Board of Commerce sponsored an essay contest for high school students on the subject of “Why America Must Win This War.”  Sixty schools participated and over 10,000 essays were submitted. The winning essay was written by William “Bill” Laux, a junior at Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School, the nation’s first free Catholic high school.  

Following graduation from Roman in 1943, Laux was inducted into the U.S. Army, and served as a private in the infantry. He was killed in action in Germany on November 30, 1944, one of the 112 Roman alumni who gave their lives in WW II.

Roman Catholic High School’s Alumni Association now sponsors an annual essay contest among Roman’s students in honor of Bill Laux. The focus of this year’s contest was for the students to write about the connections between what Bill Laux faced in 1942, and what the students face today in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, as well our nation’s current social turmoil. Assisting the judges in the contest was 95-year-old Joe Kiernan from the RCHS Class of 1943, a classmate of Bill Laux. 

Kiernan served in the U.S. Army Air Force in the 741st Squadron, 455th Bomb Group as a B-24 Ball Turret gunner, completing thirty-five missions over Europe. He died on June 2nd, just one day after the winners of the essay contest were announced.

The winners are the following seniors from Roman Catholic High School: 1. Luis Hermoso, 2. Jordan D’Alonzo 3. Tyree Petteway, 4. Connor O’Brien, 5. Timothy Skalski.  

As we celebrate our Independence Day, perhaps the words of the below excerpts from the winning essays will help to dampen the divisions between us and re-inspire a sense of shared patriotism.

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If the people of this nation unite to become better allies with each other – no matter our race, religion, or political affiliation – there will be less of a divide…After reflecting upon why America needed to win World War II, Bill Laux put his own life at risk and entered the battlefield in Europe with the hopes of helping America win the war.  Unfortunately, he lost his life a short time later, but his words have a lasting impact: “Americans are fighting for freedom – not to do as one pleases, but to do what is right, or rather, not wrong, according to the dictates of conscience and human law…” (Luis Hermoso)

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Laux’s essay can help us today because as he stated, basically we only have two choices: “We Americans either win or perish.”  His war was just like our war against the pandemic –  we need to survive.  Giving up and quitting is not an option.  Our mission is the same as Laux’s: to fight until the end and give it all we’ve got.  We must fight, not just to exist, but to live and guarantee that all people have the right to the fundamentals of freedom, justice and equality…What we can learn from Bill Laux is that no matter what obstacles we face in life, whether personally or as a country, we should never give up, and always have faith and courage. (Jordan D’Alonzo)

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Laux stated that Americans needed to secure orderly government, personal safety, justice and cooperation among nations to win the war in the defense of democracy…We cannot win this war by defeating the virus in our nation alone.  It is a worldwide pandemic, so we need to establish a battlefield in every country…We need to ensure the security of our neighbor’s rights since that will guarantee our victory. (Tyree Petteway)

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The men who left Roman in 1943 made a difference in the world by fighting for our rights and sacrificing their lives in war.  As they fought in the battlefields, their hope was that everyone would have a deeper understanding of how important it is to protect our rights of freedom, justice, and equality for all…William Laux and his Roman classmates struggled to create a better world for mankind and protected our country’s rights so that all Americans, like myself, could accomplish our dreams and live in a peaceful nation forever. (Connor O’Brien)

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The coronavirus may not be as lethal as a bullet, but the emotional toll it takes has a similar sting.  However, we must realize that this pandemic will end eventually, and life will be able to return to normal.  Until then, we will continue to fight this war, all in our own ways, struggling through this unfortunate and tough time.  I hope that 75 years from now, the current students at Broad and Vine are looked up to with a similar reverence as the brave boys who came 75 years before us. (Tim Skalski)

Chris Gibbons is a freelance writer from Philadelphia and President of Roman Catholic High School’s Alumni Association.  His recent book, Soldiers, Space, and Stories of Life, is a compilation of 78 of his published essays.

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