War is never over, vets say

Colleen M. Farrell

The occasion was fun, the mood merry, as veterans marked Christmas with a party in Greece last week at the Lodge on the Green.

Members of the VFW Lt. Kirke Otis Post 1457 meet monthly to catch up and talk about their lives and families.

Talk of the past rarely comes up, said World War II veterans Joe Zannie  of Greece. If it does, the men said, it's quickly put away.

But the thoughts, the memories, easily intrude. They think about the comrades left behind, the friends "pushing up crosses" in France, why some died — and why some lived.

And there's no real answer but luck, some said, or the by the grace of God.

Vince Cimino of Gates has been asked to talk to schools and colleges about his time in World War II. He always declines because he can't go down that road in his mind again, he said.

"I can tell you right now, being 20 years old and seeing what we saw, I can't believe it," Cimini said. "It's hard to believe I ever survived it."

He was one of thousands who landed at Normandy and fought at Omaha Beach. He spent 17 months in military hospitals after a land mine exploded and injured him. He earned the Purple Heart, but the medals don't really mean much, he and Paul Cardinale, the group's oldest vet at 93, said.

At 27, Cardinale was considered old by the guys, who called him "papi." He fought in the bloody Battle of the Bulge, where he lost 20 of his men. Of the 600,000 who fought there, only half made it home, he said.

"And for all of that, all we got was a medal," he said. Coming home, "we were so battle-fatigued we didn't know where we were, but it felt good."

Al Ceccanti of Chili was a prisoner of war during the conflict. He was held for a few months before the war ended. The prisoners slept in an open field or on the ground with one blanket.  He remembers marching until the soles of his shoes and socks were gone. He made strips from curtains in an abandoned schoolhouse to wrap his feet.

He and his buddy, who knew a bit of German, stayed at the back of the line when they marched, near the German soldiers. If they were lucky, they could bum half of a cigarette or a bite of food. He remembers some men breaking rank to grab a sugar beet from a field.

"If we ate the snails on the bushes, you could call it escargot," Ceccanti said.

When the French liberated them, everyone ran to the German barracks to find food. But the French took it away, Ceccanti said, out of fear the men would get sick from eating too much on such empty stomachs.

Arriving home was "fantastic. We made up for the lost food, I'll tell ya that," he said.

There are funny stories, too.

Bill Bellows, who was in the Air Force, remembers personnel taking pictures from their planes for Gen. George S. Patton.

"And every time they went over, (Patton) was already there," Bellows said, laughing.

Tony Galletto, who earned the Bronze Star, met his wife, Elisabeth, who is German, during the war. They've been married 60 years.

Galletto was actually listed as killed in action after he and a buddy couldn't leave a house because it was under fire. They heard the Germans come in but they scattered, Galletto said, when his buddy fell asleep and his helmet hit the floor. They were finally able to get back to their troop.

During the fight, Galletto remembers telling his friend they'd make it out of there alive.

"And I knew he didn't believe it and I didn't either," he said. "The feeling is it's not you, it's someone else. That's how you survive."

The stories they all could tell, said Cardinale. Now, he wonders who will tell them when they're gone. He gets upset when he sees children come up to him when he's selling poppies and they ask what they are. The group makes about $5,000 a year through its annual poppy sale, money that funds veterans' programs here and across the country.

The group also holds a Mass of remembrance on Memorial Day to honor their fallen comrades, the number of which keeps growing.

The group goes to as many funerals as they can, commander Guy Tarquinio said, and members place a poppy on their brother's casket.

The Post once had 1,200 members. Now, it's down to 33. They've lost 20 members since 2001 alone, Zannie said.

"And every year we lose more," said Tarquinio said.

Colleen M. Farrell can be reached at (585) 394-0770 Ext. 265 or at cfarrell@mpnewspapers.com.