Book of letters home shed new light on WWII soldier's life

Vito Santangelo did many remarkable things in his life, but his most daring feats were things he just didn't talk about. 

Like so many men of his generation, the Jefferson High graduate returned home after the second World War to live a relatively quiet life.  He didn't speak much about his military service.

The medals he won were tucked away in a suitcase he brought back from overseas with other mementos of war. They included a Silver Star and a Bronze Star, two of the highest awards the American military can bestow, given for singular acts of valor or heroism.

"My sister and I would look through the memorabilia when we were growing up and were always interested in knowing more," said Jan Gubiotti, one of his two children, "But he never talked about those medals and we were reluctant to ask about them because it brought back painful memories for him. They remained in that suitcase until he died."

It's a familiar story, especially for families of World War II veterans, according to Chuck Baylis, executive director of the Military History Society of Rochester.

"I hear this all the time, where they'll say nothing about their service until the last years of their life, or sometimes not at all," he said. 

Veterans Day, Nov. 11, gives their families and the rest of us a chance to honor the people who who would never shine the spotlight on themselves.

Santangelo's daughters knew that he'd been a platoon sergeant, that he fought on D-Day, and that he'd been wounded in action.  Further details of his experiences remained a mystery to those who knew and loved him.

After the war, Santangelo settled into a job for the postal service, working as a clerk at the main branch in downtown Rochester.  He and his wife, Rose, had two daughters, and by all accounts they lived a happy life together.  Santangelo died in 2002 at the age of 83.

Afterward, his daughters took those medals out of the suitcase and had them framed, giving them a place of honor in their homes.  But the full story of their father's fighting days remained largely untold.

Letters home

Last year, the Santangelo family got a call from an Ohio man named Bill Brown.  His brother Frank had served with Vito Santangelo in the war, and the pair had become very close friends.

Brown had uncovered a trove of drawings, photographs and more than 500 letters that his brother sent home from 1941 to 1944. 

Included in this collection were pictures of a young Vito Santangelo that his daughters had never seen, and letters describing the pair's daily life as soldiers.

"My mother kept all the letters he wrote to her over a three-year period and a lot of his photographs," Brown said. "She passed away in 1995 in LeRoy, but I didn't think about writing a book until two or three years ago."

In those letters, Frank Brown described boot camp and maneuvers in South Carolina and Georgia and long days of waiting in England as they participated in the preparations to invade France.
Bill Brown compiled these letters and photos into a book, called My Son, My Son, Where Are You?  It's available from Amazon as a paperback or an ebook.


It was clear from the letters that Frank Brown, a native of LeRoy, Genesee County, and Vito Santangelo, a native of Rochester, had formed a close relationship.

"They first met at the Niagara Falls induction center. Both were inducted on the same day," Bill Brown said.  "They had the same Italian descent and there was a bond there."

Each had grown up with strong family relationships, where the days were spent gathered around the dinner table to share good food and lively conversation.

The pair advanced together to the rank of sergeant, with Vito serving as a patrol leader and Frank serving under him as squad leader. 

Frank's letters home offered a peek into the daily life of enlisted men. Because they had to pass through the censors, the notes offered few details about combat or training exercises.  More often, they told of the times the two friends spent together off duty, attending a dance at the USO or finding a meal that reminded them of home.  

"They sometimes would bet each other who could eat the most chocolate sundaes," Gubiotti said,  "which could number two or three."

For Santangelo's daughters, these letters helped paint a picture of their father as a young man, a person they had never met. 

"Dad was a quiet and pensive man," said daughter Linda Parnett. "I have often wondered if the war changed his personality at all."

Landing at Utah Beach

Santangelo and Frank Brown were together when the they landed at Utah Beach, around 10:30 a.m. June 6, 1944. They were part of the second wave of landing craft, and with heavy smoke obscuring the shoreline, they missed their objective by almost a mile.  But the pair organized their men while under fire and advanced inland.

Records suggest they confronted only minimal resistance for the first few days, but on June 8 the Germans launched a major counter-offensive near Emondeville. The casualty rate for Company C was 60 percent, and among the soldiers who lost their lives was Frank Brown.

Santangelo was injured in that battle, and sent to England to recover. That September, he began writing letters to Frank's parents. He told them he'd been too grief-stricken to write sooner to express his sympathies.  

Those letters, preserved in the Brown family's collection, were something his family had never seen.

"We miss our best buddy more than anyone will ever know and the sorrow and heartbreaks we boys must witness daily," Santangelo wrote. "The world will little know and appreciate the grand fine boys that have given their lives for it. Only the individuals as you well know, you who have lost your best."

That correspondence began a lifelong relationship between Santangelo and the Brown family.
"We would visit them every summer when we were little girls," Gubiotti recalled.  "We never knew the significance of that, we just knew that their son had been a friend of Dad's who had died."
But through reading Bill Brown's book, she and her family began to understand just how close the two men were.  They began to see that relationship with the Brown family as their father's sacred duty, a way to honor his friend and preserve his memory.

"We have always had the greatest admiration for my father. This just underscored for us that he was a man of integrity. He felt his responsibility so strongly." Gubiotti said. "He was always a hero, but now we see him in a more global light."

Santangelo received the Silver Star for his heroism on June 8, during the battle in which he was wounded and Frank was killed. The commendation describes how he took charge as his platoon came under attack from relentless artillery and mortar fire.

"Sergeant Santangelo expertly administered first aid to the wounded and directed the others to withdraw, remaining with the injured men until medical personnel arrived to evacuate them," it reads. "The leadership, skill and unselfishness of Sergeant Santangelo are in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service."

Santangelo was also awarded the Purple Heart.

There had been some confusion about how Frank Brown had been killed, and military sources couldn't even say for sure what day he died.  In anguished letters, Santangelo told the Brown family he and Frank had become separated during the battle, and that he had no answers to offer.
Santangelo spent about six weeks recovering from his own injuries in England before rejoining his unit.  The fighting grew more intense, and in late July while on a mission his platoon came under heavy machine-gun fire.  

"Constantly urging his men ahead until the enemy was dislodged from its position, he then encouraged his platoon to close with the foe," an Army dispatch recounts. "In this violent engagement many of the enemy were killed, and the remainder were routed in a state of extreme disorder.  As darkness approached, Sergeant Santengelo hastily reorganized his men and assembled stragglers, in order that the company might be under effective control on reaching its objective."

For these actions, Santangelo was awarded the Bronze Star.

A hero's legacy

In August 1944, Santangelo's division helped to liberate Paris. They continued their pursuit of the Germans fighting in the Siegfried Line, the Ardennes and the Hurtgen Forest. 

"After this, I believe Dad suffered from what then was called 'battle fatigue' and I think he was sent again to England to recover," Gubiotti said.  Santangelo returned to Rochester on a brief furlough to get married, then returned to the front lines until the war ended.

Santangelo carried the burden of his wartime experiences by himself, as so many of that generation did, without complaint.  His family always knew that he was a hero, even if nobody else did.  Now, some 15 years after his death, they have new insights into the life he never told them about.

"He was a humble and private man who protected us from the horror he experienced, Gubiotti said. "It was the medal citations that gave us a glimpse into his wartime experiences and his heroic actions. But it was Bill Brown's book that brought his story to life for us and we will be forever indebted to him for that gift."

Cannon rededicated

The city of Rochester on Thursday rededicated the monument of a World War I Austrian howitzer in Washington Square Park. The howitzer was a gift to the city in 1921 from the people of Italy in recognition of the more than 1,400 men of Italian descent from Rochester who fought in World War I. The city contracted with a company from Georgia, Historical Ordnance Works, to refurbish the cannon.

© Gannett Co., Inc. 2017. All Rights Reserved


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