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. ••EndFragment