66 years later, World War II soldier laid to rest in Arlington

Surrounded by family and friends, Marilyn Duell, 72, of Miami, Florida, the oldest niece of the family of Sgt. John R. Simonetti, receives the flag from his coffin at Arlington National Cemetery.
Surrounded by family and friends, Marilyn Duell, 72, of Miami, Florida, the oldest niece of the family of Sgt. John R. Simonetti, receives the flag from his coffin at Arlington National Cemetery. Mary F. Calvert/MCT

ARLINGTON, Va. _ John R. Simonetti, an American World War II soldier killed in France 66 years ago, was laid to rest Monday, his soul passed to heaven on the prayers of more than 100 loved ones _ nearly all of whom he never knew.

He was killed at age 26 by a German sniper, days after the D-Day invasion of France. His comrades saw him fall, but were unable to retrieve his body. For decades, he lay buried in a cow pasture, likely interred by villagers.

Monday he was raised up on prayer and faith.

Cardinal Edward Egan of New York presided over a mass at the Old Post Chapel near Arlington National Cemetery, honoring Simonetti with the Christian burial he never had.

“May he now shine with our lord and savior,” Egan said.

He continued. “The family has every reason to be proud of their uncle, and you and I have every right to be grateful – every duty to be grateful – to young men like Johnnie.”

His relatives call him “Uncle John” now, and they can remember childhood stories about him. “They always said he was popular, athletic, handsome and loved the ladies,” said Marilyn Duell, at 72 the oldest niece and Uncle John’s closest living relative. She was a young child when he died.

He lived on in the memories of six siblings and his parents, Joseph and Marie Simonetti, of Queens, N.Y. They never stopped believing that despite the official death notice, he might come home. And they never held a funeral for their son, because they never had a body.

When a French road-digging crew discovered Simonetti’s skeleton and dog tags in May 2009, Simonetti’s nephews and nieces pledged to bring him home.

“My generation views this as a celebration,” said Bill Poveromo, 59, a Charlotte resident whose mother was John Simonetti’s baby sister. “We’ve been waiting so long for this.”

Poveromo never knew Uncle John, of course. Almost all who knew him have since died. The extended relatives -- nieces and nephews who know only stories of him -- have scattered across the country.

More than 100 gathered in Arlington, Va., late Sunday for a wake at a local funeral home, brought together by the efforts of Fred Salerno, a nephew and the former vice chairman and chief financial officer for Verizon.

At the wake, mourners saw Simonetti’s flag-draped casket for the first time.

“You finally realized your ancestors were looking down, and you felt their pain,” Salerno said.

Egan declared Monday’s mass a ritual of both sorrow and joy, because the extended family had come together, he said, and because they had faith.

“Well, Mrs. Simonetti, here is your Johnnie,” Egan said in his homily. “He came home so that we might come together.”

He imagined the young soldier greeting his mother in heaven. “Johnny says, ‘That’s my mother. And Mother, the family had not forgotten us.’”

In the chapel, some wiped away tears.

Poveromo thought of his own mother, Uncle John’s little sister. She was the baby of the family and the closest in age to Uncle John.

“I’m going to take this tomorrow” – Poveromo pulled the funeral program from his suit jacket – “and put it on her grave.”

Simonetti was buried with military honors.

At the gravesite in Arlington Cemetery, members of the Army’s 3rd U.S. Infantry Regiment, “the Old Guard,” snapped taut the flag that had been draped on Uncle John's casket. Seven riflemen fired a trio of volleys, and a distant bugler played taps.

Then the flag was folded, white-gloved hands gently smoothing the creases. Solemnly, the flag was passed down to Maj. Gen. Michael Tucker, current commander of the Army's 2nd Infantry Division.

Tucker saluted, pivoted, then knelt before Duell, the official next of kin. He offered his condolences on behalf of a grateful nation.

Cardinal Egan spoke a prayer.

“Rest in peace,” he said.

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