Have you ever had the experience in which you’d met a person for the first time and felt as if you had known him or her before? Here in the States, we deem this a form of psychic phenomenon; the French call such occurrences deja vu. No matter what you choose to call it, the experience leaves you a bit awestruck, and perhaps more than a bit. You realize that life is not random, that it has a pattern, and even a purpose. And sometimes you realize that, through your experience, you are meant to share what you have learned with others for an even higher purpose. That is my aim in sharing this true tale with you.
My own deja vu begins in South Philadelphia, when I was boy during the 1930’s. Growing up in the vicinity of 10th and Ritner Streets, my contemporaries and I were, for the most part, the children of hard-working, God-fearing immigrants. Life was pleasant in my boyhood. It would be years before the streets of Philadelphia were choked with cars, so it was easy for the kids in the neighborhood to have some good, clean fun playing stickball and other games in the streets. Although I had my own circle of friends, I also had those “familiar strangers” that we all have in our lives. Mine were the boys with whom I attended the same school. I’d see them in the halls and around the neighborhood; although I’d recognized many faces and had casual encounters with the owners of those faces, I was “tight,” as we say today, with my own group.
In the blink of an eye, a single event forever changed my life as well as many other lives — an event that forced boys to become men overnight. On the morning of December 7th, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, thus providing our President, FDR, with the impetus to enter the United States into that long, bloody campaign known as World War II. I was not yet of military age, and neither were most of my friends and peers. But as the war dragged on and more birthdays passed, Uncle Sam caught up with us via the draft.
One of the boys drafted from my South Philly neighborhood was Joseph A. Ermilio. While Joseph was not a close friend of mine, I knew him from the neighborhood. Enlisted into the Army on April 22, 1943, he trained as infantry and was not the first member of his family to serve his country in WWII; his brother Vincent was drafted in July of 1942. After fifteen weeks of basic training, Joseph was slated to see active duty in the European theater. There, he found himself in the heat of an invasion of Italy’s coast, near the resort towns of Anzio and Nettuno.
There is an Old Italian saying attesting to the beauty of Naples: “Vedi Napoli, poi morire” translates to, “See Naples, then die.” Unfortunately, during World War II, many American soldiers did just that.
In the predawn hours of January 22, 1944, British and American forces stormed the beautiful beaches in a flawless attack that caught the German defenders completely off guard. Their high command had never expected an invasion in the months of January or February. One paratrooper attached to the 82nd Airborne Division remarked, “It was a warm, sunny day and you could hardly believe that there was a war going on — and that I was in the middle of it.”
Securing the beaches, the Allies drove the Germans inland, then stopped to regroup. This small pause in our offense allowed the Germans to counterattack, with a vengeance. In next four months, the Allied troops would see some of the most savage fighting in this war.
It was during this time that Joseph became a casualty of war, listed as killed in action. At home, the news of his death spread throughout the neighborhood. By the time Japan had surrendered to the Allies, Joseph A. Ermilio would be the sole casualty of all the South Philly neighborhood boys who had served in WW II.
With the war ending, all of the neighborhood boys, who were now men who’d served our country, gathered at the corner of 10th and Ritner to form a Social Club, which we called Club Gramercy. As time passed, we all got married and drifted apart, as people do when they assume family life and the obligations that accompany it.
Many years later, in 1986 to be exact, two members of our club, Baby Joe Carabasi and Tony Griffoni, ran into each other in a supermarket in the Greater Northeast section of Philadelphia. They vowed to get the old gang back together by networking through people that they both knew. Baby Joe and Tony cobbled together a list, a list upon which the names of the original fifty-four club members emerged. In October of 1986, the first meeting of the Boys Of 10th and Ritner (nee, Club Gramercy) was held at Vitale’s Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia.
Over the years, my friends and fellow soldiers celebrated a ten-year anniversary at the Coastline Restaurant in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. Today, we are but a handful of that old gang and do not meet as often as we did. But we do keep in touch. In the many meetings we attended together, one name always came up whenever we would discuss what we’d seen and done overseas, during the war. That name was Chatty Joe Ermilio, a nickname given to Joseph by one of the neighborhood boys. In my youth, South Philly was famous for nicknames in our crowd. We had Nicky Blue, Baby Joe, Happy Joe and Happy Joe Jr., Duke Campisi, Fishy Yellow Gooney Ercolani, and many more monikers that would bring a smile to your face, as they did to ours.
As a writer for this website, I have contributed stories of my experiences, including tales of some of the people who have touched my life. These stories, which you can find here, include An American Hero and The Boys of 10th and Ritner. At the beginning of this particular story, I had promised to explain my deja vu experience, and I’m going to make good on that promise.
In researching some of the material and quotes for my articles, I came across a man named Joseph, who commented on An American Hero. He said he was directed to my article when he entered his name into Google, and the search engine indicated this website. It turned out that this Joseph was the namesake of his Uncle Joseph A. Ermilio — the same person whose name appeared in the article I had written, the uncle who had died protecting our freedoms in World War II.
Since then, I have spoken with Joseph A. Ermilio II and learned that he has a son who also carries the same name. Joseph the II wanted to keep alive the memory alive of an uncle that he and his son had never known. He told me that he is the oldest living member of his family, and had little knowledge of his uncle, but for the fact that he died an unsung hero on an Italian beach in World War II. As fate would have it, the Internet directed him to find some history of his uncle in an article written by me, the boy who had once shared the same neighborhood, a wider circle of friends, and service to our country with that uncle.
Joseph the II also told me that his parents and grandparents had moved out of South Philly to Upper Darby, Pennsylvania, and that Upper Darby is where he’d spent his youth. His grandparents never experienced closure for their son’s death, even though the soldier’s remains were returned to American soil in 1948. They brought their unease with them when they, too, were laid to rest, leaving Joseph the II to ponder the life of his namesake.
In my conversation with Joseph the II, I gave him a list of contacts that could shed more light on his uncle’s early days of growing up in South Philly. I reminded him not to wait too long to contact the other members of club, because time is not on our side. He said he’d spoken with Joe DeGenova, who is mailing him information.
Was it fate, deja vu, or the hand of Providence that allowed me to connect with a direct relative of the only boy who never returned to our neighborhood from the war? Was it technology that enabled many intervening years between my boyhood and the present day to collapse for a brief moment, even as those years expanded to illustrate how Joseph A. Ermilio still lives on in his bloodline, through descendents hungry for information about the infantryman who had died on the soil of his ancestors? Or was it Joseph himself, reaching out from the great beyond to direct his nephew, in effect, to me — knowing that nephew was searching for answers?
As I ponder these questions, I have no real answers. However, it is hard to believe that a story I wrote could have such a dramatic ending. In the final analysis, I don’t think that this was a coincidence. I feel that this seemingly chance encounter with Joseph the II contains a message for the American people. I believe the message is to remember those who took risks and offered the supreme sacrifice in protecting the freedoms we too often take for granted. There are certain times during the year, such as Memorial Day, that our nation sets aside for just this purpose. Too often, we enjoy that holiday as a time to relax, forgetting why we really have the day off and who, in effect, gave us that day.