“...Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but she leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less..." --Machiavelli
This story begins as many familys' stories begin all across this country. Brave grandparents decide to come to America seeking a better life for their children. They made this great sacrifice because their family was their life. Waves of immigrants came to the shores of America in the late 19th /early 20th century with the same dream of a better life for their family.
4.5 million Irish immigrants came to America from 1820 to 1930 – with 2million between 1841 and 1854.
5 million German immigrants came to America between 1850 and 1930 – with 2 million between 1848 and 1885
5.5 million Italian immigrants came to America in the years from 1880 and 1920 – with 2 million arriving in the decade 1910-20
These waves brought my family to the shores of America in 1906.
My mother’s parents, the Simonettis, like many of their compatriots, embraced the new American culture and at the same time, out of shear necessity and out of love, they settled in neighborhoods where other family and friends had settled.
My cousin, Joe Cagnazzi, made this observation about those early family immigrants: “They came into this country with nothing, zip, zero! They earned a living, raised their children, and stressed the importance of getting an education to ensure that their children would enjoy more of the benefits of living in the USA. They were bilingual, ethical people who left the relative tranquility and security of living in a small Italian town to gamble on a better life in America. They visited each other regularly, they laughed, they played, and they suffered the loss of some of their children in WWII…so that their grandchildren could live the good life in America.
They never had a lot of money but that didn’t seem to dampen their spirits. We miss them desperately and thank them for their sacrifices.
I am sure that many of you can see your own family in those words. The story I am about to tell you is about my family. In particular, it is the story of my uncle John Simonetti.
John was born on May 24, 1918. He was the 6th of 7 children born to Joseph and Mary Simonetti, my mother’s parents. My mother was their third child and the eldest girl. They lived in Jackson Heights, New York, about 1 mile south of LaGuardia Airport and about 1 mile west of Shea Stadium, in a community with many relatives nearby.
The Old Neighborhood
John’s civilian portrait
John grew up during the hardest days of the worst depression this country has ever experienced. Yet, those who knew him described him as happy go lucky and energetic.
Lee Brancati remarks
He was driven to serve his country and he joined the Civilian Conservation Corp.
He was great kid, in great shape, dedicated, religious and respectful. As you can imagine, his parents were rightly proud of him. He was also very brave – and was one of the first to enlist in WWII as soon as he was able.
John & parents
Because he was a great athlete, he was placed in a special unit in the 2nd Infantry Division Rangers. He was trained in all types of warfare and climates, including skiing and sharp shooting.
John trained long and hard. He was very cognizant of the dangers ahead and he rose to a leadership position within his squad as a Staff Sergeant. Once all the training was done, his Ranger unit was chosen to be one of the lead brigades that would liberate France after D-Day.
Omaha Beach Landing
I know you all are familiar with the events leading up to June 6, 1944. We all have seen the photos and films of the largest invasion ever undertaken by mankind that resulted ultimately in the liberation of France and the advancement upon the Germans in two short months.
Omaha Beach Landings
This was an unbelievable accomplishment but the cost was high. It is estimated that 2500 American soldiers were killed during D-Day and the Battle of Normandy. 3184 were wounded, 1928 were declared missing and 26 were captured.
Omaha Beach Landings
Many have seen the movie “Saving Private Ryan” and it is probably the closest most of us can get to understanding or visualizing what these brave soldiers experienced. It was these brave men who rested control of the defensive positions that were held by the Germans and paved the way for the subsequent march to victory.
Rangers/Omaha Beach on DDay+2
Now John did not arrive until D-Day +1. He was part of the 2nd Infantry Division, Company G whose mission was to capture the town of St. Lo. John and his comrades had remarkable success during day 1 to day 8 as they marched inland. We were able to secure data about his particular unit’s activities during this time in the form of copies of the “Morning Reports”.
Morning Report dated June 7, 1944
The report showed that of the 251 members of his unit they had experienced few casualties – in fact in the morning report from D-Day +9 , 205 soldiers had been unscathed by the fighting. However, the world turned upside down on D-Day +10 for this unit.
Omaha Beach/St. Germain
They were about 20 miles from Omaha Beach in a town called St. Germain d’Elle. St. Germain was a key location because of its proximity to Hill 172. From the vantage point of Hill 172, they could see the town of St. Lo – the objective for which they had trained.
Like many of the surrounding towns, Saint Germain was surrounded by hedgerows that few of the soldiers had ever seen until that day. But hidden in those hedgerows, were some of the most effective German forces that had ever existed. The Germans fired on John’s squad and the casualties soared. So on D-Day +10, one-third of John’s entire force, some of the most skilled soldiers in the Army, were killed. According to one of his comrades, John was killed by a single bullet through the throat. It was said that John was last seen firing a rocket launcher at a German machine gun nest before he was mortally wounded.
The fighting was so intense and the bloodshed so great that the Americans were forced to retreat without retrieving the bodies. (A soldier related that he had seen a German soldier come up to the bodies and take John’s gun.) John’s squad was unable to move forward for a few days and when they finally could they were unable to find his body. Eyewitnesses all confirmed that he had died but he was listed as Killed in Action (KIA) because his body was not recovered.
Morning Report July 2, 1944
Like many other Gold Star mothers, my grandmother was devastated. John had been the apple of her eye. Quite frankly, she never recovered from the loss. In fact, she never believed that he had actually died. Because she had difficulty seeing, anytime we were out with my grandmother and she would see someone in uniform, she would ask us to go “see if that is my Johnny”. She lived with that hope and that sadness until she died.
Now I never met my uncle as I was 1 year old when he was killed. However, like many of my generation, I lived in a household with a large extended family in the neighborhood where many of my relatives lived. My mother and father and 2 brothers lived under the same roof, in the same house as my mother’s parents, my great aunt & uncle and their family and a great aunt that never married. And everywhere in everyone’s house was a picture of John.
Photo of John
While I didn’t get to know John the way I knew my other relatives, I really DID get to know him. My mom told us stories about the younger brother that she adored.
John was always present in our lives because of his absence, because of the memories that were shared and because of my family’s love for a son that was tragically taken and sorely missed. Like countless sons of immigrant families who were lost in the fighting, John’s loss was accepted as part of what it meant to be an American – but he was never forgotten. Since the body was never found, our family did request that the Army investigate the case. In 1952 the Army did a search but came up empty handed. Other attempts over the years were also fruitless. John’s absence remained an open wound – one that never healed in the lives of my grandparents or my parents – an open wound that was passed on to the next generation. In 1994, the 50th Anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, my wife Pat and I decided to take a trip to France. It was an opportunity to do a little investigating of our own and pay homage to our beloved uncle John. We went to Normandy and visited the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville sur Mer, 1of 24 cemeteries overseas. It was quite moving.
American Cemetery in Normandy
There are 9387 soldiers buried there who were lost during the D-Day invasions and the ensuing military operations in WW II. It was built on the site of the temporary American St. Laurent cemetery that was established on June 8, 1944.
There are 33 pairs of brothers buried side by side including the Niland Brothers, whose saga was the basis for the story in Saving Private Ryan. Two of Teddy Roosevelt’s sons, one killed in WW I and one killed in WW II, a father and son, and one woman, are buried there as well.
There were rows and rows of headstones so immaculately kept & thousands upon thousands of markers stretched out before us, each one representing a fallen soldier, a family’s loss - a heroic soul taken too soon. On the Wall of the Missing the names of all those who had never been found at the conclusion of the Normandy campaign are listed.
Photo w/o rosette
There are 1557 names inscribed there – John Simonetti was one of them. I have very vivid memories of visiting this site. A guard was kind enough to show us exactly where to find his name, even helping us to fill it with wet sand so that we could take a photo home with us.
Filled with the emotion of the place, we said to ourselves we should go a little further since we had come this far. So we hired a French speaking guide to take us to the town where John was supposed to have been killed – St. Germain d’Elle.
It was 20 miles from Omaha Beach, down a winding country road and as we got closer to town I could see in the distance – hedgerows.
Aerial view of St. Germain
The first place we saw was the Catholic Church. Interestingly, I noticed that the cornerstone said 1946. We were told that the original church was destroyed in the war. We walked around the graveyard looking to see if there might be any trace of where John or any other soldiers might be buried. Like the Army in 1952, we found nothing. We walked to a local store and our guide inquired as to whether there might be any residents who might have been around during the D-Day fighting. Surprisingly, there were two – an elderly farmer and his wife still working the same farm. With directions in hand we went to the farmhouse. Our guide introduced us and explained our visit. The wife was so kind and so pleasant. She directed us to her husband who was out in the field repairing a fence. We walked out to see him – out past the electrified fences for the cows and past the hedgerows. The farmer was happy to share the story of what happened in those fateful days. As he spoke, you could tell that his experience was as fresh in his mind as when it first happened.
He told us to look out in the distance to Hill 172. He explained that there had been an ammo dump that the Americans had been trying to secure. The fighting had taken place all around the farm and I began to feel that it was possible that John could have been killed right where we were standing.
The farmer also told us about the original church that stood not far from the new one we had seen. There had been a sniper in its tower which was to the right. To the left was a milk factory that had a smoke stack where snipers could sit. And in front were the hedgerows where the German soldiers hid.
The townspeople had left before the Americans arrived. When they returned, they found countless bodies, both Germans & Americans that had not been buried.
Photo of French Couple paying respect to a Fallen American soldier
The French tried to bury as many as they could but no one really knows for sure where exactly the burials took place. As he spoke, we felt as though we were in the middle of the battle where John was killed. It was such an emotional experience.
We left with such mixed feelings – we now understood so much more about the tragedy & yet we were no closer to finding the body. Of course I didn’t expect to find in my one trip what the Army could not find for so many years, but I felt so close to John that day in that field and maybe for the first time I could truly understand the sadness that my parents and grandparents had lived with for all those years. We thanked the farmer and left him in the field. We also went back to thank his wife and I left my business card with my uncle’s name on the back.
Photo of business card
We left with a great sense of satisfaction in that we had paid the proper respect to Uncle John. We certainly had learned a great deal about the French people and their continued gratitude for what the American soldiers did for France.
We shared our experience with our family and I think everyone felt we had done as much as could be done to honor and memorialize John. All we had left was John’s Purple Heart and a letter from the President thanking us for John’s service to the country.
And then around Memorial Day 2009 – I get a phone call. On the front page of a local newspaper in Normandy is the story about the remains of an American soldier being found during some excavation work in Saint Germain.
Gendarmes with skeleton
The dog tag is still around his neck and the other is nearby. The name of the soldier spreads throughout the village. Although her husband has passed away, the farmer’s wife still lives there and goes to her drawer and pulls out the business card – and it is a match! Uncle John has been found!
I will let Mayor Delafosse and Deputy Mayor Bertholon, of Saint Germain, tell you the story.
This is a quite miraculous turn of events, to say the least, but the interesting coincidences continue. An official of the town, Dennis Lesage, has been given the business card. Dennis just happens to be related by marriage to the wife of an American, Bruce Biggs, who lives in Virginia and just happens to ride with the Patriot Guard.
Photo of Patriot Guard
If you are not familiar with the Patriot Guard, they are a volunteer organization and their mission is twofold: to show their sincere respect for our fallen heroes, their families, and their communities and to shield the mourning family and their friends from interruptions created by any protestor or group of protestors. They volunteer their time and take no donations. They are veterans who give of themselves out of respect for their fallen brothers. They are a remarkably dedicated, passionate and patriotic team.
I have come to know Bruce Biggs as a true American patriot who is also very involved in POW/MIA and Veteran’s issues. When he got the business card, he began an exhaustive search to find me as all of the information on the card had changed in those 15 years. His doggedness, coupled with the wonder of the internet, enabled Bruce to find me through my board affiliations. He called the General Counsel of Viacom who called me. Now to be quite honest, I was hopeful but skeptical when I heard the news. But once I talked to Bruce, I knew he was the real deal - the connection was made!
Again – just think about it – the oldest living widow in St. Germain keeps a business card in a drawer for 15 years – she gives it to a town official who just happens to have a relative in the US – who just happens to be a member of the Patriot Guard – a group who is dedicated to honoring our fallen soldiers and escorting them to their final resting place.
In fact, I think we knew that John had been found even before the Army even knew, all because of a connection made with a farmer and his wife in a field in Saint Germain. The closure we had sought for all those years was finally within our reach.
We contacted the Army and they arranged for DNA testing. Just before Thanksgiving 2009 we got confirmation that the DNA was a match and that John would be repatriated to the U.S. Again – Memorial Day we get the call from Bruce – Thanksgiving we get confirmation from the Army. Amazing!
After confirming the genetic match, the Army then took the remains to the JPAC (Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command) facility in Hawaii for exhaustive forensic testing. In July 2010, we met face to face with Army representatives, including Lt. Col. Eric Wolf, the Army representative assigned to our family.
He presented us with a thorough report on all their findings. This is the Army’s report and it is available for you to look at after this presentation. There are many interesting, key points in that report.
Skeleton from Army report
Amazingly, the skeleton was remarkably intact. It is rare that after 65 years you would find so much of the skeleton so well preserved but the rich non acidic soil in the area did not take a great a toll on the remains. (In Asia, for example, the soil is much less forgiving and as a result, remains found there are rarely as complete as this.)
Also found were bullets, his dog tags, buttons, bits of fabric from his uniform and a fair amount of his boots.
Obviously, the family was elated and we began to plan a fitting memorial. On October 25, 2010 John Simonetti was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. We certainly felt the eyes of our ancestors were upon us and the ceremonies that took place.
It was such an emotional experience for our whole family, not only because of the miraculous recovery but because it brought together family members that had not seen one another in years.
As part of our planning and tribute to John, we put together a family tree. Of the 280 names (including infants), 80 have passed away. Of the 200 names remaining, 110 people attended the celebration of John’s life.
John’s body arrived at DC National Airport by commercial airline, bringing him back to the U.S. for the first time since 1943. My brother, Peter and I were able to be on the tarmac as it arrived. Of course, I had no idea what to expect.
photo of plane
What appeared to be clouds over the plane actually were 2 fire trucks with water cannons shooting an arc of water over the plane creating an amazing halo effect as the plane passes under it.
We later found out that the pilots had told the passengers about their special mission and the story of their special passenger. He asked for their patience and support since John’s body would be removed from the plane first.
photo of casket
When you see this photo, if you look carefully, you will notice the passengers standing at attention watching the flag draped casket being taken to the hearse. I was so touched by all the people who took a moment to witness this amazing sight. It is stall hard to tell this story without getting emotional because, to me, this is what America is all about.
Following the arrival of the body, our family gathered together to begin the weekend events that would celebrate John’s life. It was quite a moving experience and one that we shared not just with our family. We were pleased and honored to have Bruce Biggs and Mayor Delafosse and Vice Mayor Bertholon in attendance as well.
> Photo of Mayor and Vice Mayor with FVS & Peter
They were so moved by the discovery in their town that they wanted to be part of our celebration. We had hoped that Dennis Lesage could be here as well but he could not travel at that time.
They presented us with a beautiful medal making John an honorary citizen of the town.
Presentation of medal by mayor
photo of medal
Patriot Guard outside Funeral Home
Our family gathered together at the funeral home where we were greeted by the Patriot Guard – standing at attention in honor of John and our family.
Lt Col Wolf w/shadow box
We were also joined by Lt. Col. Eric Wolf presented us with a shadow box of all of John’s medals and explained what a brave soldier John would have had to have been to earn each one.
Lt. Col. Wolf remarks
The following day, a funeral mass was celebrated for John.
Photo of Church
We discovered that no funeral mass had ever been held since there was never a body brought home.
Photo of Egan
Although we only had ½ hour for the mass because of the number of ceremonies held at Arlington each day, Edward Cardinal Egan, the former Archbishop of New York City, traveled down to Arlington just to celebrate the mass for Johnny, the son of John and Mary Simonetti and a son of NY as well.
After an eloquent, touching, humorous and bittersweet sermon, we traveled to the gravesite. His Eminence, Cardinal Egan joined us at the gravesite for the final prayers and goodbyes.
Entrance to Arlington & gravestones
If you have never been to Arlington, I can tell you it is a very unique experience. My first experience was for a dry run of the service, and I was so moved by its beauty and tranquility, especially in the new section where John is buried. While there, I saw families crying and even hugging the headstones. It is unique, it is special, it is humbling and it is truly hallowed ground.
You will notice that this riderless horse still carries boots but they are backwards. This is emblematic of a soldier that has been killed in action.
At the mass, as well as at the gravesite, we were also honored by the presence of Major General Micheal Tucker, commanding officer of the entire 2nd Infantry Division which is headquartered in Korea.
Photo of Tucker
Major General Tucker presented our family with the flag that had covered John’s casket. That flag is the one I have with me today. After a 21 gun salute and the playing of taps, John Simonetti, son of immigrants and an American hero, was finally laid to rest in the soil of his parents’ adopted homeland.
photo of Patriot Guard member at grave
After the events of the memorable weekend in Arlington, we start the drive home to NY feeling that we have accomplished everything we set out to do - the phone rings. It seems that article on Uncle John was syndicated in a Denver paper.
The son of a 94 year old veteran who was John’s best friend in the Army and who was with him on the battlefield the day he died, says his dad saw the article and was overcome by the story.
Peter Perna photo
The gentleman was so glad to hear that John had come home. I will be heading to Denver to meet John’s Army buddy in the very near future. In preparation for my visit and as a tribute to John, and in honor of his father, Peter Perna’s son Chuck, prepared this short video for our family. Peter’s journey would have been John’s journey. Let me share it with you.
In another wonderful turn of events, we have discovered that the kindness and concern of our friends in St. Germain did not end at the gravesite in Arlington.
Mayor Delafosse at wall
Recently Mayor Delafosse and Deputy Mayor Bertholon attended a ceremony at the American Cemetery where we had seen John’s name on the wall of the missing, all those years ago. Mayor Delafosse affixed a star next to John’s name indicating he has been found.
Mayor at spot where body found
In June the town of St. Germain plans to erect a monument in his honor in the town and have invited us to be there when it is dedicated. We hope that several members of our family will make the trip this June to personally thank the townspeople who cradled John in the heart of their town for almost 60 years.
So the end of my story brings me back to the beginning.
Remember Machiavelli’s thoughts on fortune? "...Fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but she leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less..." I believe that Machiavelli had it almost right but also horribly wrong. He depicts Fortune as a mythological figure, an amorphous spirit with magical powers. But our family taught us to believe in a loving God, not Fortune. But even God requires us to do our part. And in the case of Uncle John……..
Photo of business card
I think that we can agree that this is not just a story about John Simonetti. It is an American story that shows how strong the fabric of our society, our traditions and our core beliefs remain. We draw our strength from all the cultures that have come together in this wonderful country.
But only in a country that values the sacrifice of those that have fought and died for our freedom could the homecoming of a patriot after all these years have been possible.
Through the tragedy of his death and in the celebration of John’s life, our family has been brought together in a way that has not happened since those days back in the old neighborhood. And in his honor, we vow to keep it that way.
Photo of John
I want to thank each of you for coming to hear this remarkable story. Your presence here tonight continues the celebration of his life and honors the sacrifice that he, like so many others have made, in the name of freedom. God Bless John Simonetti. God Bless All our Soldiers. And God Bless America.