The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

A Remarkable Chance Encounter

As my readers may have noticed, I’ve been off the grid and absent from real life for over three weeks now. For two of those weeks I was studying Italian in Montepulciano (Tuscany) and Sorrento. After twelve total weeks of off-and-on study (mostly off) over the past four years, I have nearly reached the advanced level, but lapses of memory and gaps in my understanding are a constant and humbling reminder that learning a language is no easy task! On the plus side, my fledgling knowledge of Italian has enriched my travel experiences in many ways. I could even follow our Rome taxi driver’s enthusiastic endorsement of all things Texan, which in his mind include cowboys, guns, his collection of western films, and his number one hero, Clint Eastwood.

But this post is not about Italy. It’s about a chance encounter during our four-hour layover in Washington, DC. While sitting in an airport restaurant, we struck up a conversation with a couple from Massachusetts at the table next to ours, and what follows is their remarkable story.

Peter Salerno and his wife (a former Italian teacher!) had attended a very special burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery the previous day. The remains of Peter’s Uncle John Simonetti, killed by a German sniper’s bullet on June 16, 1944, had been unearthed by a construction crew in the small French town of St. Germain d’Elle in 2009. For sixty-five years, the Simonetti family had waited and wondered. Peter had heard many stories about his uncle – a handsome, athletic young man who had grown up in Queens with seven brothers and sisters. But Peter never expected the most important story to end with a moving ceremony at Arlington, attended by over 100 family members, the mayor and another dignitary from St. Germain d’Elle, and even a handful of veterans now in their 90s who had fought with Simonetti.

Burial Ceremony for John Simonetti, Arlington National Cemetery, 25 Oct 2010 (U.S. Army photograph)

The United States Army News Service published an account by J.D. Leipold the day we met the Salernos. You can read the entire article here. Below is an excerpt:

Staff Sgt. John Simonetti

“WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Oct. 26, 2010) — Just 10 days after the sand and blood of Normandy’s beaches, on the heels of D-Day, 2nd Infantry Division Ranger Staff Sgt. John R. Simonetti lay prone in the hedgerows on the outskirts of the sleepy, deserted town of St. Germain d’Elle, zeroing in with his grenade launcher on a German machine-gun nest.

“As the New Yorker sighted in on his target, a German sniper hidden in the town’s church bell tower was squinting through his scope’s cross-hairs on the 26-year old. Before the GI could pull off his round, the German squeezed off his.

“Zzzzip… the bullet tore through Simonetti’s throat, tumbling down, taking out a rib, lodging in his lower abdomen, killing him instantly. On the day Simonetti lost his life — June 16, 1944 – more than a third of the remaining 300 men in his company would go down, and before the war ended, the 2nd Infantry Division would spend 337 days in action in five campaigns and loose [sic] 2,999 Soldiers.

“The fighting was nothing short of brutal. Back and forth went the momentum, but eventually the American troops prevailed. Following what become known as the Battle of the Hedgerows and the capture of St. Germain d’Elle, the townspeople returned to what was left of their buildings and homes, the little church with the bell tower destroyed, the milk factory leveled.

“Worse than the destruction of the village was the countless dead American and German Soldiers, lying in grotesque positions where they’d fallen, sometimes next to each other, victims of each other’s weapons.

“The town folk did what they could to bury the dead of both armies, making markers upon which dog tags hung, identifying who lay beneath the soil. Sometimes they buried the enemies together in the same hole. And, sometimes the markers got moved or the dog tags slipped off or were misplaced.”

Peter told us that his brother, Fred Salerno, had visited St. Germain d’Elle in 1994 during the 50th anniversary celebration of the D-Day Invasion. He was able to visit a local dairy farmer who described the battle and its aftermath. He also left his business card with the farmer, who eventually gave it to the town’s mayor. The years passed. What evolved is an amazing story of connections that included a “Patriot Guard Riders” member named Bruce Biggs, the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, Army DNA specialists, Internet research that helped the family ferret out more details of the battle and location, and finally, a telephone call.

For those of you who would like to learn more about the Simonetti case, several articles give various family perspectives and additional information:

Bowers, Paul. “For 60 years, family wondered.” The Post and Courier, 6 June 2009.

Flynn, Jack. “65 years after D-Day, Salerno family of Wilbraham may have found remains of Sgt. John Simonetti, killed by German sniper.” The Republican, 8 June 2009.

Barrett, Barbara. “A family, a nation honor Uncle John.” Charlotte Observer, 28 Oct. 2010.

Soldier Missing in Action from World War II Identified ” Military Wall of Honor, Facebook, 21 Oct. 2010.

Back with the Salernos in the Washington, DC, airport, just as we were finishing our dinner, Peter said, “Would you like to see Uncle John’s dog tags?” My heart pounded as he removed two shiny, slightly bent silver tags from a small plastic bag. Speechless, I held them in my hands.

If I hadn’t been so moved, maybe I would have remembered to ask for Peter’s card or to pull out my iPhone for a photo.

Thank you, Peter, for sharing your story. I hope that you and your family will find this post. Then I can properly thank you and ask your permission to use the photos.

Peter Salerno (Photo by Don Treeger, The Republican)

CURRICULUM CONNECTIONS

I hope you will consider using this story to personalize a Veterans Day lesson in November.

  • What do your students know about the “Missing in Action” designation? (Begin at the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office.)
  • What questions do they have about memorials such as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier?
  • Why is it important to continue the work of finding and identifying remains?
  • What can students learn about the Battle of the Hedgerows?
  • What can students learn from the Library of Congress Veterans History Project related to soldiers missing in action from all wars?
  • Can you locate a veteran willing to be interviewed by your students about retrieving comrades killed in action? The Veterans History Project has a fine list of guiding questions to use in interviews.
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Comments

3 Responses to “A Remarkable Chance Encounter”

  1. Kathy Winn says:

    WOW – what a story.

  2. Jan Veteto says:

    Every life makes a difference-a beautiful story.

  3. Peter Salerno says:

    Dear Mary,

    Much has happened since our chance meeting at Dulles.

    If it is permissible, I would like to share a video taken by CBS (they had a crew spend 3 days with our family). It is primarrily an interview with my brothers, relatives and friends who played a part in Uncl John’s recovery. We even have the Mayor on film.

    Please send me the address that I can send it to you via e-mail.

    If you need to contact me…it is psalerno1@aol.com

    Take care.

    Best regards,

    Peter Salerno

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