By Rebecca Henely
Fred Salerno, now 67, was only 1 when his uncle, Army Staff Sgt. John R. Simonetti of Jackson Heights, fought near the French town of St. Germain-d’Elle and never came home — but Salerno remembers Simonetti as a presence growing up.
“I never knew him, but I knew him,” Salerno said. “They had pictures in the house and stories of him, and he was always an icon.”
Salerno said never knowing what happened to the body of his uncle left a “gaping wound” in the family, but Monday that wound was finally healed.
In 2009, Simonetti’s body was uncovered by a French construction crew in St. Germain-d’Elle and returned to the United States, setting the stage for him to be buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery outside Washington, D.C., earlier this week.
“It was something that was denied to my grandparents,” Salerno said.
Nevertheless, the burial brought together more than 200 members of Simonetti’s immediate family, some of whom came from as far away as Massachusetts and Florida, Salerno said. Cardinal Edward Egan, the former archbishop of New York, said mass; U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-Jackson Heights) spoke; there was a 21-gun salute; and the general of Simonetti’s unit in World War II, the 9th Infantry Regiment of the 2nd Infantry Division, presented the family with the American flag.
“It was a wonderful, wonderful thing,” Salerno said.
Borough President Helen Marshall said the borough’s “hearts and sympathy” were with Simonetti’s family.
“He will now rest in a place of honor among our nation’s war dead,” Marshall said in a statement.
Simonetti was 26 when he died. On June 16, 1944, his infantryman were battling German forces in France near St. Germain-d’Elle after the invasion of Normandy. German forces hit the soldiers with automatic weapons and mortar fire, forcing them to take cover. Many American soldiers were killed, including Simonetti. After two conflicting accounts of what had happened to Simonetti and two investigations, a military review board in 1950 declared his body non-recoverable.
Salerno said everyone thought he was dead, although his grandmother, Simonetti’s mother, never did.
“My grandmother always had hope that he would return,” Salerno said.
But Salerno’s road to discovering the truth began in 1994, when he took a trip with his wife Pat to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of D-Day. While visiting St. Germain-d’Elle, Salerno had a conversation with a local family about the fights near there and left his business card with the family, he said.
Salerno was contacted when a body was found by a French construction crew with Simonetti’s dog tags. Salerno said further testing of the body proved it was indeed Simonetti.
“What better outcome could you hope for?” Salerno asked.
Reach reporter Rebecca Henely by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-260-4564.