Northeast Times

Vet graves found, marker mystery remains

Wayne Tyler Sands vis­its the four cur­rent grave mark­ers of World War II vet­er­ans at North­wood Cemet­ary, whose ori­gin­al mark­ers were found in a dump­ster be­hind a pizza shop last week, Thursday, May 24, 2012, Phil­adelphia, Pa. (Maria Pouch­nikova)

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Lynne DeBri­gida had no idea that her fath­er’s bronze mil­it­ary grave mark­er had been stolen from North­wood Cemetery in West Oak Lane.

Nor did DeBri­gida know that a second, du­plic­ate plaque had been in­stalled at her fath­er’s graves­ite, prob­ably long be­fore someone pilfered the old one from the cemetery’s main­ten­ance shed.

And DeBri­gida, the only sur­viv­ing child of Private First Class John D. Pis­ani — a World War II hero — might nev­er have known about either curi­ous and dis­turb­ing scen­ario had a sus­pec­ted thief not dis­carded one of Pis­ani’s mark­ers and those of three oth­er war vet­er­ans be­hind a Holmes­burg pizza par­lor last month.

“It doesn’t make sense. It’s bizarre,” DeBri­gida said.

As re­por­ted in the Sunday, May 20, edi­tions of the North­east Times and on the bsmphilly.com Web site, Domin­ic Isa­bella, own­er of Domin­ic’s Pizza at 8439 Frank­ford Ave., found the grave mark­ers in a Dump­ster be­hind his busi­ness on April 28 and called Phil­adelphia po­lice.

Patrol cops re­trieved the hefty rect­an­gu­lar mark­ers and re­solved to re­turn them to the ap­pro­pri­ate cemetery. Un­for­tu­nately, they had no way of know­ing where the men named on the plaques were bur­ied. The mark­ers con­tained the names of Pis­ani, Wil­li­am R. An­der­son, Her­shell Samuels and Alonzy Tru­itt, along with their U.S. Army ranks and nota­tions of their war­time ser­vice.

Po­lice sought the help of elec­ted of­fi­cials and the Times in re­search­ing the plaques and pub­li­ciz­ing the find.

A Times re­port­er iden­ti­fied the cemetery with the help of the Mont­gomery County Vet­er­ans Af­fairs of­fice and loc­ated Pis­ani’s daugh­ter. A Ger­man­town nat­ive, Pis­ani fought in Nor­mandy, North­ern France, the Rhine­land, the Ar­dennes and Cent­ral Europe. He earned the European/Afric­an/Middle East­ern Cam­paign Medal with five bronze battle stars.

“That’s a pretty highly dec­or­ated vet­er­an,” said Bob Troemel, the vet­er­ans ser­vice of­ficer for Mont­gomery County.

Based on dis­charge pa­pers, Troemel thinks Pis­ani prob­ably served in a field ar­til­lery unit on the crew of a M-7 track vehicle. It was a Sher­man tank with an open gun tur­ret, an 8-mil­li­meter tri-can­non and a .50-caliber can­non.

Pis­ani would have been in­volved in some of the most le­gendary and bru­tal fights of the war, in­clud­ing D-Day, the winter battle in the Ar­dennes Forest and the Battle of the Bulge.

He settled in Roslyn after the war, mar­ried his long­time sweet­heart, Olive, fathered two chil­dren and man­aged a tex­tile plant. Like many vet­er­ans, he nev­er told war stor­ies.

“I re­mem­ber ask­ing him a couple times and he brushed it off like he was just do­ing his duty,” DeBri­gida said.

“He was a very ded­ic­ated fam­ily man, home at five o’clock every night and we had fam­ily din­ners. He was al­ways very gen­er­ous. He en­joyed life and be­ing around people. And people en­joyed be­ing around him.”

He died in 1990 and was bur­ied in North­wood Cemetery. North­wood con­firmed that An­der­son, Samuels and Tru­itt also are bur­ied there. All have grave mark­ers.

“Our only spec­u­la­tion is that some­body came in­to the yard and took something,” said Wayne Sands, the cemetery man­ager.

The likely motive was cash. Bronze is valu­able on the scrap met­al mar­ket these days, selling loc­ally for about $1.70 a pound. The stolen mil­it­ary mark­ers might have net­ted the thief $150 or more had he been able to find a scrap yard to take them.

North­wood staff didn’t no­tice any­thing miss­ing un­til an aide to U.S. Rep. Mike Fitzpatrick called the cemetery last week. The Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion had sup­plied the con­gress­man’s of­fice with the buri­al sites.

An in­spec­tion of the graves re­vealed that Pis­ani has a du­plic­ate bronze mil­it­ary mark­er in place; Tru­itt has a marble up­right mil­it­ary mark­er; Samuels has a gran­ite up­right non-mil­it­ary mark­er; and An­der­son has a bronze, flat, non-mil­it­ary mark­er that he shares with his late wife Helen.

Ac­cord­ing to Sands, An­der­son ori­gin­ally had a bronze mil­it­ary mark­er in­stalled in 1979. After his wife died, the new non-mil­it­ary mark­er was in­stalled in 1992.

Sands did not in­vest­ig­ate when Tru­itt’s and Samuels’ old mil­it­ary mark­ers would have been re­placed by the new­er ones. Tru­itt died in 1981 and Samuels in 1990.

However, Pis­ani’s status re­mains a mys­tery, even to his daugh­ter, who is now caring for Pis­ani’s 87-year-old wid­ow, Olive. DeBri­gida has no re­col­lec­tion of her fath­er’s ori­gin­al grave mark­er ever be­ing re­placed.

After her fath­er’s death, DeBri­gida re­mained in close con­tact with her moth­er, who re­mained in the fam­ily’s Roslyn home un­til sev­en years ago. That’s when Olive Pis­ani moved in with DeBri­gida.

As for North­wood Cemetery, it has no re­cord of a re­place­ment grave mark­er be­ing in­stalled for Pis­ani, Sands said. The Vet­er­ans Ad­min­is­tra­tion would have is­sued the re­place­ment mark­er. The Times was un­able to reach a V.A. spokes­per­son for com­ment on Pis­ani.

“Fam­il­ies will con­tact the V.A. is something’s wrong (with a mil­it­ary mark­er). Maybe it’s tar­nished or it’s dam­aged,” Sands said.

The mark­er re­covered from the Holmes­burg Dump­ster showed no ob­vi­ous signs of dam­age or ex­cess­ive weath­er­ing.

Reached pre­vi­ously, a V.A. spokes­per­son told the Times that it’s the agency’s policy to col­lect any un­used mil­it­ary grave mark­ers and to des­troy them. Sands said he’s nev­er seen that pro­tocol fol­lowed in prac­tice.

Old monu­ments are stored in vari­ous spots around the 100-acre cemetery. Sands is un­aware of any pri­or grave mark­er thefts, al­though sev­er­al years ago someone re­moved a heavy met­al mauso­leum door from its hinges and car­ted it away.

DeBri­gida is as­ton­ished by such greed and dis­respect for the dead, par­tic­u­larly mil­it­ary vet­er­ans.

“I think any­body who has the au­da­city to steal head­stones has something ser­i­ously wrong with them,” she said. ••

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You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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