Bob Prego only knows his uncle from black-and-white photographs in his Army uniform before he was killed fighting the Nazis in World War II.
But every Memorial Day weekend, Prego, 59, travels from his Ronkonkoma home to Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, to quietly pay his respects at his uncle’s grave site. He reflects on his sacrifice, takes a photograph of his white marble headstone and texts the photo to his brother, Henry Prego, in California: Pfc. Tony Prego, born April 8, 1923, died Oct. 4, 1944.
“He put his life on the line and died to give us the freedoms we have today,” Prego said Sunday morning. “I’m here today to honor him, the same way my father did when he took us [he, his three siblings and his mother] here when we were kids.”
Online Army records show Prego’s 3rd Infantry Division participated in Operation Dragoon, the Allied invasion of southern France, which began Aug. 15, 1944. When Prego was killed, his infantry unit was in the Vosges region of eastern France, moving toward the German border. He was among nearly 2,500 infantry troops killed between August 1944 and May 1945.
Prego said his uncle was his then-teenage father’s only surviving brother. He can’t imagine losing one of his three siblings at such a young age. Tony Prego was only 21 when he died.
Bob Prego’s father, also named Henry Prego, told him of the day he learned his brother was dead.
He was on the stoop of a friend’s apartment building on the Lower East Side of Manhattan when a car stopped in front of Prego’s building across the street and uniformed men walked toward the door with an American flag.
“He knew right then and there what was going on,” Prego said. “Back then, everybody knew that when a car pulled up like that, someone had been killed. My father went running home.”
Prego looked around at the thousands of other headstones in the sprawling cemetery. Each stood next to a U.S. flag that had been planted into the ground for Memorial Day. Prego said when he visits his uncle’s grave, he thinks of those veterans as well.
“A lot of people don’t know what the real meaning of Memorial Day is,” Prego said. “They think it’s for barbecues, getting together and getting drunk. For me, this is a time to come out and remember what these soldiers have done for us. Every one of these soldiers took the time out of their lives to help give us all freedom. Once a year, we can show a little appreciation for them.”