Salvatore Armato was a popular varsity basketball player, a compassionate young man who was kind and quick to help others. Anthony Signa was a funny, caring accordion player who envisioned working in the electronics field.
Both were students at West Babylon High School. For decades, they were faceless names on a plaque near the school’s entrance that is dedicated to alumni killed while serving in the military. Over the years, thousands of students, faculty and visitors passed by the remembrance on their way somewhere else.
Then Kyra Duke came across it and stopped.
Duke, 13, was visiting the high school last summer with her mother and was curious about who the eight men on the plaque were and what their lives were like.
“I wanted to connect the name to a face,” Duke said. “I wanted to know who they were as a person instead of just a name on a plaque.”
The plaque was donated by the West Babylon PTA in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. The school lost six former students in the fighting: John Thomas Smith, Anthony Robert Signa, Dennis James Kane, John Charles Pape, Robert Scott Mason Jr. and Salvatore Joseph Armato. Two others — Richard James Hobbie and Robert William DeFazio — died in Washington state in an aircraft training accident and in the war in Afghanistan, respectively.
There are 527 known Long Island casualties from the Vietnam War. The remains of 21 others were never recovered. The war was the deadliest and one of the longest in U.S. history, claiming the lives of nearly 60,000 U.S. soldiers during ground combat that lasted 10 years. The conflict divided the country, and many Americans protested the nation’s involvement and the draft. Returning soldiers were often treated harshly.
Duke’s mother graduated from West Babylon in the 1970s, and said the visit to her alma mater prompted a long discussion with her daughter about the war.
Kyra, an eighth-grader at West Babylon Junior High School who will attend the high school in the fall, had never heard of the draft. After seeing the plaque, she spent the summer poring over yearbooks, websites and other sources at the high school and the local library, looking for photos and information about the men.
“They were all high schoolers and they had friends and were on sports teams, and they sacrificed their lives,” said Duke, who holds a third-degree black belt in tae kwon do and volunteers several days a week as an assistant instructor. “Some were drafted or enlisted right after high school.”
Her research brought another soldier to her attention: John Charles Parry, a West Babylon resident who died in 1952 in the Korean War. Parry, 22, didn’t attend the high school because it hadn’t been built yet and is not included on the plaque, but Duke thought he also deserved recognition for his service and included him in her project.
With her mom’s help, Duke called the soldiers’ classmates and sent out letters to anyone she believed was a living relative.
“We didn’t know if we were going to get any response,” Duke said. To her surprise, she heard back from several relatives, who also sent photos and letters.
“We were thrilled and honored that this little girl went out of her way and spent her whole summer doing this for these people,” said Armato’s older brother, Ben, 68, of West Babylon. “It was a wonderful thing she did, simply wonderful.” Ben’s son Phil is a teacher at the high school.
Sal Armato was just 20 years old when he was killed in Vietnam’s Quang Ngai Province on Nov. 13, 1970. According to his brother-in-law, Robert Congiusta, 66, of West Babylon, Armato had been in Vietnam for only a month and was on patrol searching a village when a soldier next to him opened a case that detonated a bomb. The explosion blew up a house and killed everyone inside.
Ben Armato was in the Army at the same time as his brother, even going through boot camp with him at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Ben finished first and was about to be deployed to Japan when he learned his brother had been killed.
“It was so surreal,” he said of getting the news. “You never had to worry about him because he was going to land on his feet no matter what happened . . . so when it happened it was just not believable.”
His brother said his sibling was like the “pied piper” of their West Babylon neighborhood. “If you look up the word ‘popular’ in a dictionary, his picture is going to be there, that’s the kind of kid he was,” Ben Armato said. “He had one of those personalities everybody loved; everybody just wanted to be around him.”
Armato’s sister, Mary Ann Armato Congiusta, of West Babylon, was 13 when two Army officers knocked on the family’s door with the news. Her chin quivers and her eyes fill with tears at the memory.
“It’s just like yesterday,” she said. “I’ll never forget that day when we found out. . . . We all were destroyed, each and every one of us in our own different ways.”
Ben said it’s up to him, Mary Ann and their three siblings to carry on Armato’s memory and honor “what he did for us and the rest of the country.”
In this way, Congiusta said, Duke has helped.
“I think it’s a great thing, what this little girl did, to open everyone’s eyes,” she said. “The kids in the hallway of the high school, the people in West Babylon — it just should live on and on.”
Creating and donating displays
By this past fall, Duke had accumulated a great deal of information and photos. She and her mother even traveled to Washington, D.C., where they made etchings of the names of the West Babylon soldiers carved on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
But there was one soldier whose photo remained elusive: Anthony Signa. Then, out of the blue an envelope arrived with a photo. It was from Signa’s sister Rosanne Gicola, in North Carolina. Gicola said receiving Duke’s letter was unexpected and unsettling.
“It brought back a lot of bad memories,” she said. “Forty years doesn’t make it any better.”
She was 16 when her brother and only sibling was killed in Vietnam’s Tay Ninh Province on Sept. 16, 1968. He was 20.
“He was just starting his life like all of us were,” she said of her brother, who attended Suffolk County Community College before going to Vietnam. “We were all just kids.”
Gicola walked past the plaque bearing her brother’s name when she was a student at the high school. “I would stop and look at it a lot,” she recalled, adding that she is pleased it inspired Duke.
“I am glad that somebody cared enough to bring this to the forefront so that these people get recognized for their sacrifice,” she said. “They gave their lives for a very unpopular war.”
Duke took all her research and created large framed displays for the soldiers. Each one has a photo, their birth and death dates and where they were killed, their hometown and year they graduated high school, along with etchings for those killed in the Vietnam War. She donated the project to American Legion Sgt. John Sardiello Post 1634 in West Babylon.
Charles Volpe, commander of the post and a Vietnam War veteran, said that when he and other soldiers returned from the war they were warned not to wear their uniforms in public due to the harsh reception they sometimes received, including being spit on by anti-war protesters. Those killed in action also were not given proper respect, he said.
“These men just became another statistic,” Volpe said. But with Duke’s project, “Now you’re talking about an actual person, flesh and blood, someone’s brother, someone’s son.”
While the veterans inspire Duke, she inspires the district’s educators. West Babylon Junior High School principal Scott Payne called Duke a “great student,” and said he hopes she will motivate others to do similar projects unprompted.
West Babylon School District Superintendent Yiendhy Farrelly said Duke is the first student to take her up on her open invitation to stop by her office to chat. “That says a lot right there,” Farrelly said.
The time Duke spent on the project also left an impression on the superintendent. “When you talk about what kids do these days and what she spent so much time doing, she wasn’t looking for any attention or recognition. She was doing this really to bring life to these individuals. That just touched me so much.”
Officials are considering permanently installing the project at the high school, an idea that pleases Duke.
“Students walk past the plaque and they probably don’t realize they were just like them,” she said of the soldiers.
Duke returned to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in January, placing framed photos of the six West Babylon soldiers at the base of the panel that bears each one’s name. On each photograph Duke included a note that says “West Babylon Hero” along with the soldier’s name, date of birth and death and his age when he died.
For the relatives of the fallen military members, getting to share the memory of their loved ones is the best part of Duke’s project.
“It’s what they deserve, and the younger generation has to know and has to respect what they did for us,” Ben Armato said. “The memories never go away, but now it’s being shared by other people, which is really an exciting thing.”
West Babylon High School‘s military casualties
John Charles Parry, 22
Aug. 1, 1930-Nov. 20, 1952; Class of 1948 (*Babylon High School)
Killed in action—combat in Korea
John Thomas Smith, 20
Nov. 1, 1947-Jan. 31, 1968; Class of 1965
Killed in action—Gia Dinh Province, Vietnam
Anthony Robert Signa, 20
March 22, 1948-Sept. 16, 1968; Class of 1966
Killed in action—Tay Ninh Province, Vietnam
Dennis James Kane, 19
Aug. 24, 1949-Feb. 17, 1969; Class of 1967
Killed in action—Quang Tri Province, Vietnam
John Charles Pape, 25
Nov. 18, 1943-May 18, 1969; Class of 1961
Killed in action—Quang Tin Province, Vietnam
Robert Scott Mason Jr., 22
Sept. 5, 1947-Oct. 9, 1969; Class of 1965
Killed in helicopter accident—Long Khanh Province, Vietnam
Salvatore Joseph Armato, 20
Dec. 22, 1949-Nov. 13, 1970; Class of 1968
Killed in action—Quang Ngai Province, Vietnam
Richard James Hobbie, 37
Aug. 2, 1950-May 5, 1988; Class of 1968
Killed in aircraft training accident—Washington state
Robert William DeFazio, 21
Feb. 15, 1984-April 24, 2005; Class of 2002
Died of non-combat related injury in Kandahar, Afghanistan