WWII veteran's long-lost helmet in family's hands
GalleriesWWII vet's helmet returns home
When German soldiers captured Glen Cove native Rocco DiLeo during a battle near Dornot, France, they knocked the sergeant's helmet off with their rifle butts. Sixty-nine years later, the helmet -- a small dent on the side -- has returned to his family.
"God was good to me, made me live to see it," said his widow, Laura DiLeo, 91.
The helmet's journey from a mid-20th century battlefield was made possible by a late-20th century invention: the Internet.
Mike DiLeo found his father's helmet online in the hands of a French collector. After lengthy negotiations that culminated in a World War II memorabilia swap, the long-lost steel helmet recently arrived in the mail.
"When I opened the box in my house with my wife and daughter I just broke down," said DiLeo, 58, a credit analyst from Locust Valley. "It's very emotional."
His mother had a similar reaction. "When I first saw it, I was very sad . . . that he wasn't here to see it," she said of her late husband.
On Sept. 10, 1944, as the 7th Armored Division came under attack in northeastern France, American soldiers retreated by swimming across the Moselle River near Dornot. Rocco DiLeo's company took heavy casualties.
"He used to tell my brother and I, 'When I was captured and the soldiers pulled me out of the river, they hit me with their rifles and they knocked the helmet off my head -- and I never saw my helmet after that,' " Mike DiLeo said.
Intrigued, Mike DiLeo said he'd frequently go online in search of information about his father's unit and the POW camps he was held in.
In spring 2011, while browsing a French military collectors' website, he spotted photos of an American soldier's helmet. He was stunned to see his father's name and serial number hand-painted inside. He called his mother, who confirmed the serial number -- she knew it by heart from writing her sweetheart every day during the war.
After months of trans-Atlantic emails, DiLeo tracked down the French owner of the helmet. But there was a catch: The owner was demanding a trade -- for a Japanese World War II helmet. DiLeo agreed to the terms, and months later, bought the Japanese artifact for $488 on eBay.
The swap was consummated early last month. He waited until his brother Joe could come up from Florida last weekend so they could give their mother the helmet together.
Joe Davis, spokesman for the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Washington, D.C., said stories of soldiers' documents, patches and other memorabilia being returned to family members are common, thanks to the Internet, but this was the first he'd heard of a family getting back a helmet worn in combat.
"The importance to the family is this is something from Dad when Dad was . . . young and invincible, so to speak," Davis said.
Cradling her husband's helmet Friday in her Glen Cove home, a few blocks from St. Rocco's Catholic Church where they wed in 1946, Laura DiLeo recalled the day he returned home after the war.
"I just ran down to the house," she said. "He picked me off the floor and swung me around."
Rocco DiLeo started a floor-waxing business, and they raised two sons. He died of congestive heart failure in 1994.
"I'm pretty sure he would have been glad to see it," she said of the helmet. "He probably would have been as amazed as I was."