by LISA CAPOBIANCO
April 26, 1945 marks a historic event that will always remain in the mind and heart of my father’s family. It is a date that has not only taught us a bit of family history, but has also sparked a fire of compassion and empathy that continues to this day.
My great uncle, Michael F. Battaglia (my paternal grandmother’s brother) was killed in southern Germany while in action on that exact date. A graduate of Crosby High School and an employee of Scovill Manufacturing Co., Michael was nearly 19 years old when he died while serving with the 8th (Blackhawk) Division.
My grandmother tells the story like it happened yesterday. Despite my great grandfather’s pleas not to enlist in the U.S. Army, Michael felt it was his duty to serve, and no one was going to hold him back. He entered the service on April 18, 1944.
“Can you imagine a young kid getting killed overseas?” my grandmother always says when she retells the story, shaking her head in disbelief. “And the war at that time was almost over—we thought he was going to come home.”
Michael was more than my grandmother’s older brother—he was one of her best friends since they were the closest in age. One of nine siblings, Michael also was in a serious relationship during the time of his death. Although my grandmother’s memory has diminished a bit over the years, there is one part of the story she is certain about: the news of Michael’s death nearly turned their father’s world upside down.
“He prayed at every church in town,” my grandmother recalls. “After my brother died, he took down every religious symbol in the house.”
Every time my grandmother recalls this story, I never really know how to react or what to say in response. Sitting on the couch directly across from her, images appear in my mind of my great grandfather’s facial expressions as he tries to absorb the news of his son’s death. I could not imagine what it felt like to be in my grandmother’s shoes at the time let alone being the parent of a child killed in the war.
Yet the reality of my great uncle’s legacy became clearer a few years ago when a box of WWII memorabilia was discovered in the house of a great aunt who passed away in 2011. It was a box that included almost the complete story of the selfless act Michael did not think twice about. From sympathy cards to pictures to a torn, brown leather wallet, the box preserved the memory of my great uncle, and offered a greater glimpse into the life he left behind.
When my father brought the box home one day, I was in awe by the letters I sorted through, including one sent from Captain Earl L. Palmer dated April 29, 1945 (just three days after Michael’s death). According to the letter, Michael’s death was “instantaneous.” He also was described as “an excellent soldier of outstanding character.” Before his remains were returned to the United States in 1948, they were initially buried in southern Germany.
“I was in a position to know that your son always carried out his duty faithfully and proved himself a fine solder,” Captain Palmer wrote in the letter. “In the months that he has served his country he has contributed to the great success of the great cause to which we are all dedicated.”
Michael’s dedication to serve clearly shined through the material preserved in this box. Not only did Michael earn the Purple Heart but he also received the Bronze Star Medal. But one letter in particular taught me something about my great uncle I would have never known otherwise if this box had not been preserved.
On May 8, 1945, a man by the first name of William wrote a letter to my family. He happened to be a good friend of Michael who knew his comrade well.
“It doesn’t take long for fellows to know each other when they live and sleep in the same barracks, eat off the same table, go to the movies together, march side by side under the hot sun, share their letters and packages from home and face the ordeals of soldiering together,” William said in the first part of the letter.
“Mike was a good soldier—always about on his toes…but that wasn’t all of him, not by a long shot—he was always cheerful, always ready to joke…even when the going was tough he would help us all by laughing off the situation and thus easing our tension.”
Although I have never known him, that quote from William’s letter says enough about my great uncle that has led me to believe what kind of character he embodied on and off the battlefield. He did not expect pity, and he did not expect praise for his duty.
It was simply his duty to fight—without giving up. He fought with a smile on his face, not only to ease his own pain, but also to ease the pain of those who fought with him.
As this year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, Michael Battaglia’s life is just one of many that will be commemorated and embraced.
Lisa Capobianco is a staff writer for The Observer.