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Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day: Remembering Joe Tofinchio

In honor of Memorial Day here in the US - a day set aside to remember those who have died in war - I want to tell you a bit about Joe Tofinchio.

My Grandpa, Nick Fontana, met Joe Tofinchio when they were in the Army together.  They became great friends, and Grandpa even brought Joe home to meet his family before they shipped out to England.  After training there for what seemed like forever, they found out that they would be part of the assault on German-occupied France (aka D-Day).  On June 6, 1944 they landed on Utah Beach.  Three days into the fight, Grandpa got word that Joe had been killed.  After 35 days of combat, Grandpa was injured in the leg by exploding shrapnel and he was sent to England to recuperated.

Grandpa didn't know much about Joe's family, and it was years before he made it home himself.  By the time he did get home he was engaged to my Grandma, Eileen Hunt, who he'd met in England and he was busy trying to get her over to the US so they could get married.  Years and years went by during which he often thought about Joe.

Around 2004 or so my extended family took a trip to the D-Day Memorial in Bedford, Virgina.  While we were there we helped Grandpa look up Joe's name in their files.  Grandpa was furious when he found out that Joe was listed as a Private - Grandpa KNEW he'd been a Sergeant.  That mistake bothered him tremendously and it came up in conversation many times over the next few years.  In 2008 I decided to do a bit of digging and see what I could find out about Joe.  Through an amazing set of circumstances I eventually got in contact with Joe's surviving sister and brother.  I exchanged letters with them and spoke to them on the phone.  It was unbelievable and fantastic.  I was able to share with them all the memories Grandpa had of Joe (Grandpa is hard of hearing and can't talk on the phone all that well, so I talked to them and passed messages back and forth) and tell them that Joe is still remembered all these years later.  They in turn were able to clarify the story of Joe's move from Sergeant to Private; apparently he asked to be demoted because he didn't feel comfortable leading his men into the battle on D-Day since he felt it would be a death sentence for them.  This news gave Grandpa a huge amount of peace, knowing that the official records hadn't made a mistake.

I was also able to learn that a man in France takes care of Joe's grave in Normandy as part of a project that pairs local families with the graves of American soldiers.  This was yet another thing that gave us all a great sense of peace and comfort, knowing that someone we (and Joe) didn't know cares enough to keep up Joe's grave.

I hope that you will take time today and throughout the year to remember the people like Joe who didn't come home from war.  These men and women left behind families who had to go on without them.  Years go by and fewer and fewer people are left to remember them, especially fallen soldiers from long ago wars.  I never knew Joe Tofinchio but I remember him today.

Kiddo carrying his Cub Scout Pack's flag in our local Memorial Day Parade

If you have a minute I'd love for you to listen to the words of this song. I can't help but think of Joe whenever I hear it, and it always makes me think of all the men and women whose memories are slowly fading away.


bermudaonion said...

What a great story! I'm sure knowing Joe is not forgotten gives his family a sense of peace.

Amanda said...

That story brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for sharing.

Kay said...

Heather, this was really special and I thank you for sharing it with us. What a wonderful story and I'm so grateful to Joe and your granddd and my dad and all the others who were part of that war so that we all could have the lives we have.

My Dad fought in the Pacific in WWII, the Philippines and New Guinea. He spent his 19th birthday on a ship crossing the Pacific. I remember his sacrifice and all the others today.

Hug your grandad for us!

Joy Weese Moll said...

This is lovely. Thanks so much for giving us this story on Memorial Day.

Amanda said...

What an awesome story! I think that is so cool there are people over there willing to take care of other's memorial sites. Wow.

Meg said...

A lovely story and powerful message to remember every day. My grandfather has many stories about his friends with whom he served in the Air Force and Vietnam, and I always gobble them up. I know they're important for him to share -- and I'm happy to hear them.

Alison's Book Marks said...

What an incredible story, and a beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing this story with us!

(This also sounds like the beginning of a novel I would kill to read...Heather? Do you hear me??)

Heather J. said...

bermudaonion - It was amazing when I got to talk to them - they were so happy that someone still remembers Joe.

Amanda - I'm glad you enjoyed hearing about it.

Kay - Grandpa is in Florida (about 1,000 miles away) but I will definitely hug him for you next time I see him. :)

Joy - Thanks for taking the time to read it - that means a lot to me.

Meg - My dad doesn't tell that many stories (he was a Green Beret in Vietnam) but I'm hoping that one day he will tell me about his time there.

Alie - I know, right?! My family has such great stories and I KNOW they would make a great book but I'm just not that creative. :(

Aths said...

Thank you so much for sharing this story. It's wonderful that people like Joe are remembered. Next time I head to the WW2 memorial in Bedford (it's just 30 mins from here), I'll also look up Joe's name.

Heather J. said...

Aths - Oh, that would be wonderful! We found his name with the help of one of the volunteers. It's not on the actual memorial because he didn't die on D-Day itself, but it is on file somewhere there.

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