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My namesake uncle's great sacrifice at Iwo Jima

Writer Joseph Fantozzi of Massapequa, right, and his

Writer Joseph Fantozzi of Massapequa, right, and his sister, Laurie Savage, meet World War II veteran Joe Bruni during a 2015 trip to Norfolk, Va. Fantozzi, 58, was named after his uncle, Pfc. Joseph Esposito, who is shown in the painting and was a good friend of Bruni. Esposito died while fighting with the Marines on Iwo Jima near the end of World War II. Photo Credit: Fantozzi family photo

I never imagined I'd find myself searching for a grave site on a beautiful summer afternoon, but here I was at the Long Island National Cemetery in Farmingdale, searching among the brilliant white headstones, each indistinguishable from the next save the names etched on their fronts.

It was a text message from my brother, Jimmy Fantozzi, in May that started me on this journey.

"Happy Memorial Day," he typed. "Remember what it is, and when you get a chance, check this out..."

There was no hint of what he meant, but his text contained a link to a video in which 92-year-old Marine veteran Joe Bruni read a poem called "Ode to Joe."

Bruni belongs to a veterans writing group in Norfolk, Virginia, in which military veterans share their experiences through poetry and prose. His reading of "Ode to Joe" was posted on CNN's website.

About midway through the video, I realized that Bruni's poem was about his best buddy, Joe Esposito, who had served alongside him in the Fourth Marine Division in World War II -- the same Joe Esposito for whom I am named.

I grew up in Whitestone, Queens, knowing that my namesake had been killed in action on Iwo Jima in February 1945, just six months before Japan's surrender 70 years ago on Friday, Aug. 14, brought the end of World War II. When we visited my grandparents' in Brooklyn in the 1960s, an oil portrait of Uncle Joe looked down on us kids from above the mantel as we ran through the living room. The portrait, along with my mother's wartime letters to my uncle, was passed down to me by my mother.

I contacted the head of the veterans writing group, Sam Pressler, and he invited me to hear Joe Bruni give a reading of his poem on June 6, the anniversary of D-Day. My sister, Laurie Savage, and I made the seven-hour drive down to Norfolk, Virginia, where we had the privilege of hearing Joe recite his poem and talk about our uncle. At one point in his talk, Bruni mentioned how he and his fellow Marines carved a headstone at my uncle's temporary grave site on Iwo Jima. Fortunately, I had brought with me a letter written by Bruni to our mother in 1945, complete with a drawing depicting it exactly the way he described it for the audience 70 years later.

When I arrived home, I decided to search for my uncle's grave site online. I was surprised to find that he was buried just a few miles from my home, right here in Farmingdale. So that was how I found my uncle's grave that sunny day in June. In a standard inscription, it has a cross, and says, "Joseph A. Esposito, New York, PFC, U.S. Marine Corps, World War II, March 29, 1922 - Feb. 19, 1945."

I have always been conscious of my uncle's service to his country, but thanks to his best buddy, the meaning of his sacrifice -- that of a young man's life cut short -- was made real, bringing home the tragedy of war and giving me the chance to touch history.

Reader Joseph Fantozzi lives in Massapequa.


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