Tag Archive | "Boys of 10th & Ritner"

The Strange Saga of Private Joseph A. Ermilio

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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.



An American Hero

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Jim & Tom 2

We grew up in a neighborhood in South Philadelphia, bounded by Snyder Avenue to the north and the Philadelphia Navy Yard to the south and from Broad Street east to 7th Street.  It was an ethnically mixed neighborhood.  I lived in the 2400 block of Hutchinson Street, and he lived in the 2300 block.  As boys, we did not have a close friendship, even though we knew of each other.

 

We grew up during the Great Depression, but living in our neighborhood, as we realized many years later, was as close as you can come to Heaven.  As kids, we enjoyed the pleasure of playing in the streets without fear.  There was no television or home air conditioning or automatic gas heat, although we did have some modern conveniences, such as hot water, indoor plumbing, washing machines, and radio.  Life was much simpler then in an era when “spare the rod and spoil the child” was the order of the day.  Our parents worked hard trying to make ends meet.  It was here we learned family values, such as honor, duty, and respect.  The lost art of conversation still prevailed at family gatherings.

 

Pearl HarborThen something happened that would forever change our lives.  World War ll erupted in Europe. Initially, the United States remained neutral, until December 7th, 1941 when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  On that fateful Sunday, President Roosevelt announced to the Congress and the American people that a “state of war” existed between the United States and the Empire of Japan and its ally Germany.

 

With the Declaration of War, America rolled up its sleeves, as every man, woman, and child, pitched in to help the war effort.  The Draft was instituted to call up men needed for the Armed Forces.  Factories all over this great country set aside peacetime products and retooled to manufacture implements of war.

 

I was two years younger than he, and while I worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, as an electrician helper, he was drafted into the U.S. Army.  He trained in the Infantry and was later sent to England as a replacement, with the Third Armored Division, for the Invasion of Hitler’s Europe.

 

Normandy D-DayJune 6th, 1944 the greatest Allied Armada ever assembled, crossed the English Channel and stormed the beaches of Normandy.  The German Army well entrenched, threatened to drive the Allies back into the sea, but by the end of a day that came to be known as “D-Day the Longest Day,” the American and Allied Forces managed to gain a beachhead on Fortress Europe.

 

Arriving in Normandy 13 days after D-Day, the Third Armored Division moved up to the line, for their “Baptism of Fire.”  Here at St Lo, the advancing American and Allied forces were stalled in what was to be called the Hedgerow country.  French farmers had planted hedges that surrounded their farms.  These hedges planted centuries ago, became a formidable defense for the German Army, who zeroed in on every opening with mortar, cannon, and machine-gun fire. 

 

A plan, dubbed “Operation Cobra,” was devised to break out of St Lo area. It called for the saturation bombing of the Hedgerow country in order to allow the American and Allied forces to break through.  On that fateful day, the sky was black with Allied bombers as wave after wave systematically dropped their bombs and opened a path for the advance of the stalled Allied and American armies.

 

Third Armored DivisionFollowing the break out at St Lo, the Third Armored Division raced across France, in pursuit of the fleeing German Army.  In a pincer attack they closed the Falaise Gap, trapping thousands of the enemy and causing their surrender.  In their rapid attack, they crossed the Seigfried Line, to become the first to enter Germany.  They penetrated into German soil, reaching the town of Stohlberg.  It was here they were ordered to return to Belgium to help stop the German attack called “the Battle of the Bulge.”

 

On January 3rd, 1945, near the town of Floret, Belgium, the hand of God touched him who was to become my lifelong friend.  It came in form of an enemy shell, ending the war for him.  As he lay on the battlefield with massive wounds of the arm and leg, the Medics who had picked him up informed him that he had “Million Dollar” wounds and would be returned to England for surgery and rehabilitation.  After his recovery, he was returned to his unit.  By this time, however, the war in Europe had ended and, in a short while, he would be going home.  With the defeat of Germany, and the introduction of the “Atomic Bomb,” World War ll ended on September 2nd, 1945 and with it came the return of the veterans of World War ll.

 

As the South Philadelphia neighborhood boys came home, they started to congregate at the corner of 10th and Ritner streets.  It was here that a long and lasting friendship began.

 

Jim & Tom

 

In the spring of 1951, we married two girlfriends, I married Madeline (Midge), and he married her dear friend Thelma.  He was our Best Man and Thelma was our First Bridesmaid.  A few weeks later, Midge and I would be the First Bridesmaid and Best Man at their wedding.

 

In the years to follow, they would become Godfather and Godmother to my first son born in 1954.  And, just a few years later, we would both relocate to the town of Maple Shade, New Jersey.  We continued a close friendship over the years, until Midge suddenly passed away on May 27 1975.

 

With her passing and the need to care for my two sons without the aid of a wife, my life became very hectic.  I altered my work schedule to allow me more time with my boys, and I didn’t have much time to socialize with friends.  In essence, I dropped out of sight.  With my children grown, I remarried eight years later and resumed my life.

 

In the fall of 1986, I got a call from my good friend who asked me if I had interest in attending a reunion of the “Boys of 10th & Ritner,” an offer I enthusiastically accepted.  This first of what would become regular meetings of all the old gang was a huge success – so much so that we held them every six weeks for more than 10 years!

 

We would meet at Sam Cobblestone’s Bar & Grill in South Philly on designated Tuesday evenings.  Here, we reminisced about growing up in the old neighborhood, told jokes, and related tales about our experiences in World War ll.

 

In 1987 I retired and, following a period during which I traveled about the country, took a part-time job with a local liquor store.  On occasion, my friend would stop in and shoot the breeze with me, discussing plans to attend our next meeting and any other news he happened to know.  

 

It was during one of these visits that I introduced him to my manager, Bob Sparks.  As usual the subject of World War ll came up.  Bob indicated that he also had been in the War and mentioned that he had trained together with Tony Lanciano from South Philly.  This coincidence almost blew our minds, for he had mentioned the name of one of the old gang.

 

On the 50th Anniversary of D-Day, he came to visit me at work.  He looked a little distraught as we discussed the Normandy Invasion.  Then suddenly, all the memories came back and welled up inside of him – then came pouring out.  Taking him aside, I calmed him down.  Then, I said to him, “50 years is too long to carry this burden, and it is time that you let it out.”

 

It was then that I came to the realization that, in all the years I had known him and all the times we had been together, I had been standing in the shadow of a real American Hero.  At that moment, I decided to set the record straight and give him the recognition he so richly deserved.  And so, whenever he was in the store, I would introduce him to customers upon whom I waited, saying “I want to introduce you to a real American Hero, from Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge where he was wounded.  This is one of the guys who kept you from doing the goose-step.”

 

As they would look at him in awe, he would laugh and say, “Don’t listen to this guy, I was only doing my job.”  Like all heroes, he did not consider himself one.  Yet, he held five Medals – Good  Conduct, Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Purple Heart, World War II Victory, and European Theater of Operations (ETO) with five Campaign Stars for Normandy, N. France, Rhineland, Ardennes, and Central Europe.  And, the memories of his experiences in the War haunted him for the rest of his life.

 

But, it was not merely the memories he carried with him.  Many years after completing his service, he fell down a flight of stairs during a visit to a relative’s home.  Following an emergency room visit and thorough examination, he was released, but not before being approached by the radiologist on call who queried “do you know that you have a piece of steel behind your right knee?”  In response, my friend stated “it’s probably a German shell fragment, I guess they didn’t get all of it out.”

 

Like all heroes, he was matter of fact about his injuries, wounds from which he suffered both physical and psychological pain for the remainder of his life.  Yet, he never spoke of either the memories or the injuries.

 

Jim Tedesco 2

 

They say “old soldiers never die,” and I pray that this is true.  For, the hero of whom I am proud to have spoken was my good friend and Best Man, Vincent {Jimmy} Tedesco.  On June 19, 2003, he took his memories and injuries with him to his earthly grave at Brigadier General William C. Doyle Veterans Cemetery in Arnytown, New Jersey.  Yet, I believe that his spirit lives on.

 

And, so that he does not remain among the nameless who took the risks, paid the price, and returned to build the greatest nation in the history of our planet, I wrote this tribute.  To my good friend Jimmy and to all the Jimmies whom I did not know, I salute you!

 

Jim Tedesco

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