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Soldier killed in France in 1944 finally comes home

Lee Brancti, 89, a cousin of Sgt. John Simonetti

Lee Brancti, 89, a cousin of Sgt. John Simonetti and the last living family member who remembers him, listens during the service. (Oct. 24, 2010) Credit: Jay Paul

In 1994, Fred Salerno wandered through what had been a Normandy battlefield, scrawled his uncle's name on the back of a business card, and pressed it into the palm of a French farmer who had lived through the fighting there five decades earlier.

In doing so, the Quogue resident harbored faint hope that he might one day learn what had happened to the long-dead World War II GI he knew from family lore as "Uncle Johnny."

The uncle, Army Staff Sgt. John Simonetti, had been advancing on Nazi troops in the hedgerows of the Normandy coast when he disappeared in the chaotic aftermath of the D-Day invasion. His body was never found.

Then, last year, a construction project near the battlefield unearthed the bones of an American soldier, and a pair of battered dog tags. Someone in the village remembered the business card.

Monday, borne home by the empathy of French villagers, the dedication of a Virginia motorcyclist and the perseverance of Simonetti's family, the once-lost soldier will be laid to rest with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

"I was in shock when my brother told me he had been found," said Charles Salerno of Carle Place, whose brother Fred left the card with the French villager. "It was something that happened in wartime and was gone. I was six then. I'm 72 now. Sixty-six years had gone by."

Until his remains were unearthed just east of Normandy's windswept coastline, Simonetti was among the more than 74,000 American GIs still classified as missing in action from World War II. Memories still tug at the relatives of those GIs presumed to have been killed but whose remains never have been found.

"His picture was in all of our houses while I was growing up," said Peter Salerno, 69, a former Smithtown resident now living in Massachusetts. "This brings closure to a family that had really kept his memory alive over the years."

 

Grew up in Queens

Simonetti, the son of immigrants from near Bari, Italy, grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens, as World War II approached. A compact, robust athlete - he was 5'8" and nearly 160 pounds - he built parks in Wisconsin while employed by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps before enlisting in the Army months before Pearl Harbor.

A Ranger with Company G, 9th Regiment, 2nd Infantry Division, he arrived on Omaha Beach the day after the Allied D-Day invasion. He was killed nine days later, a few weeks past his 26th birthday.

According to Defense Department and eyewitness accounts of Simonetti's death, he was firing rocket-propelled grenades at a Nazi machine-gun nest during fierce fighting near St. Germain d'Elle on June 16, 1944, when he was shot through the throat. The Americans were forced to pull back, and Simonetti's body was never recovered.

Relatives say because of that, Simonetti's mother, Marie, never fully accepted her son's death. But she had a measure of closure when a cousin, Ben Simonetti, also killed in the war, was buried.

"My grandmother always believed there was a chance Johnny would come home alive," Charles Salerno said. She died in 1963. "Whenever we would see someone in uniform while we were out walking near her apartment in Jackson Heights, she would say in Italian, 'Go over and find out if that's Johnny.' I couldn't tell her Uncle Johnny was dead."

Fred Salerno's 1994 visit to Normandy put the wheels slowly in motion to solve the mystery. Salerno, 67, marked the 50th anniversary of his uncle's death by visiting the battlefield where he had fallen. And rather than discarding the business card, the French farmer forwarded it to the village's mayor, who took seriously the possibility that Simonetti's remains might one day be unearthed.

 

A call 15 years later

Fifteen years later, Fred Salerno got a call from Bruce Biggs, a member of the Patriot Guard Riders, a national network of motorcyclists who honor America's war dead. An official of a village near St. Germain d'Elle, whose daughter was an in-law of the Virginia motorcyclist, had asked Biggs to help track Salerno down.

It wasn't easy. Salerno had retired. The company on his business card - NYNEX - no longer existed. But Biggs used an Internet search to find him.

"All the cogs in the wheel just kind of came together," said Biggs, who lives near Richmond, Va.

Late last year, Army forensic investigators in Hawaii matched Simonetti's DNA with that of Fred Salerno.

After 65 years, Simonetti finally could come home.

"I couldn't even imagine that it was actually happening," Fred Salerno said. "I kept thinking what a shame this didn't happen when my mother, and especially my grandmother, were alive. What it would have meant to them."

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