Korean War veterans reunited at VA home
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They went to boot camp together and were among the first American GIs sent into battle at the 1950 outbreak of the Korean War: one, an Army cook, the other a combat medic who once bound his new friend's wounds.
When the war was over, the two soldiers from Brooklyn said their goodbyes. They found jobs, started families, moved to Long Island, and lost touch with each other.
As the years passed, all they had as reminders of their war years were yellowing photographs. Their memories lost their sharpness. First one, then the other checked into a nursing home.
And that is where they found each other.
August Angerame, 83, and Frank DiBella, 82, of Bay Shore, who fought together in Korea at the dawn of their adulthood, are together again at its twilight.
The middle stages of dementia have left both men unable to speak, according to their families. But that has not robbed them of the joy of being together again.
"They seem more peaceful now," said Angerame's son, John, while visiting his father last week. "My father winks and smiles."
The story of their reunion after more than 60 years has become the talk of the Northport nursing home staff, said Gina Norton, a 16-year nursing assistant who cares for DiBella.
"I'll tell him, 'Mr. DiBella, that's Doc over there,' and he'll nod," Norton said.
"And when I put him in bed, he'll do like this," she said, waving her arm as if to open the privacy curtain that separates the spaces where the two men sleep. "He wants to be able to see Doc. And when I do, and he can see him, he's fine. He'll go right to sleep."
Shelton Mitchell, 91, who commanded the 165-man anti-aircraft unit in which Angerame and DiBella served in Korea, said he considers the story of their nursing home reunion so moving he will share it with other members of the unit at an October reunion in Alabama. He said attendees likely will take comfort from the fact that two men who fought to keep each other alive in Korea are now keeping each other company as they approach life's end.
"Unless you've been in combat together, you can't understand relationships between soldiers," Mitchell said, his voice breaking during a telephone interview. "It's like finding a long lost brother for them to be together again."
John Angerame said his father was placed in the nursing home a few years ago, after he began wandering his Bayville neighborhood without knowing where he was.
In May, he was reassigned to DiBella's room.
The two men did not appear to recognize each other immediately. But John Angerame, who had been researching his father's military service records hoping to find other soldiers who knew him, recognized photographs over DiBella's bed as being from the same 68th Antiaircraft Battalion in which his father had served.
"I saw the name Frank DiBella and I jumped," John Angerame said. "They'd gone to basic training together at Fort Bliss [Texas]. They went to Japan together on the USS General Black, and were in two typhoons."
The two men found themselves headed for the Korean peninsula within weeks after fighting broke out between the Soviet-backed North and the United States-backed South on June 27, 1950. They were stationed with the same gun battery, Battery D, which at one time fought its way almost to the Yalu River border with China. DiBella, a cook in the unit, had a knack for snagging steaks and other treats scarce at the battle front. Angerame, the 165-man unit's only medic, once ignored his own leg wound to treat several injured soldiers -- including DiBella -- when an artillery shell exploded near them, Mitchell said.
The three-year war ended in a territorial stalemate without a clear victory. Some 33,700 American troops died; another 2,701 perished as prisoners.
Unlike the hero's welcome that had greeted GIs returning from World War II, Korean War veterans arrived home almost unnoticed. Angerame got a job as a printer with the New York Herald Tribune. DiBella eventually went to work as a conductor with the Long Island Rail Road.
Their paths crossed briefly at a Korean War reunion about a dozen years ago. But their children believe the effect of wartime explosions had already begun eroding their mental acuity. The two Army buddies never exchanged contact information, and were again lost to each other.
Now they spend all day together, surrounded in their nursing home room by pictures of their families, and photos from their time as young soldiers. They don't talk. But they smile and wink, and sometimes take the other's hand.
"My father gets very expressive with his eyes," said DiBella's daughter, MaryRose Munroe, of Islip. "And I think Augie knew from the beginning. As soon as he moved in with my father, he kept coming over and petting him. I think Augie knew sooner than anyone thinks."
Munroe said it has been hard for her to see her father -- the once gregarious former treasurer of the Islip chapter of Disabled American Veterans -- confined to a nursing home. But she takes some consolation from the way things have turned out.
"It's comforting," she said during a visit last week, "to know that when we can't be here, he's with a friend."