'Just another soldier going home'

World War II veteran speaks of loss, life in Valley Stream

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Second of two parts.

Pat Albarella awoke in December 1943, lying in an Army hospital bed in Tunisia, frantically feeling for his legs, which had been badly burned in Italy a few days before. Doctors had refused to guarantee that they wouldn’t amputate, so he shouted with joy as he saw them propped up in casts above his head.

He would spend his second Christmas away from home there, recovering.

The following month, Albarella returned to Italy for reassignment, where the American invasion of the German-occupied peninsula still raged. A ship of new recruits had come ashore to be processed. In the crush of soldiers, he saw a teenager who looked familiar, except for a hint of facial hair just starting to come in.

He called out, “Frank?”

The boy looked over. It was Albarella’s younger brother, one of three boys in the family. The commanding officer allowed them to spend the night together. It was the last time Albarella ever saw Frank.

Shortly afterward, in January 1944, Albarella took part in the amphibious landing at Anzio, the final major conflict of the Italian invasion, where he was assigned to balloon duty. He helped hoist large, unmanned zeppelins, called barrage balloons, above the landing craft and beachheads, intending to make it more difficult for enemy planes to attack the area.

Then it was on to Southern France, and the final invasion of the European front.

“I always say, they either thought I was a good soldier or they were trying to get rid of me,” Albarella joked of the fact that he had been assigned to four invasions at that point.

He followed behind the front lines as one of the millions of Army personnel who supported the frontline infantry. In the European theater, for every soldier who saw combat, there were nearly two who served as support.

All roads lead to Berlin

It was on the march to Berlin where Albarella had his second brush with death. In a recently liberated French village, he felt a splash of water hit his face.

“I knew that the sniper had just missed me,” he said, and noted the high walls surrounding the front yards of homes in French villages at the time.

“I must have set the high-jump record,” he joked as he recounted diving over one of the walls and keeping his face in the dirt for hours until tanks arrived to dislodge the sniper. Albarella later learned that it had been a Vichy soldier, the name given to French sympathizers who fought on Germany’s behalf, and  “a lousy shot,” he said.

In the summer of 1944, as the Americans began the rush toward the heart of Germany, Albarella said of the enemy, “I had a feeling we had them beat.”

At that point it had been almost six months since he had seen Frank, and things were quiet, he said. So he asked a fellow soldier to cover for him, telling him, “I’m gonna take off,” as he left his company to search for his brother’s.

He found it after three days of walking, Albarella said, but when he asked the commander about Frank’s whereabouts, he was told, “Soldier, he’s on patrol.”

Frank’s squad had been supplied with three days of rations, Pat was told, so he decided to wait. He lay in the grass in the sweltering heat to rest, but was shaken by the sound of nearby explosions. “The artillery had opened up,” he recalled, “I knew I wouldn’t be able to see him.”

Pat returned to his unit after about a week, and his commander promptly threw him in the brig and threatened to have him shot for desertion. When they pulled him out, the commander called him into his tent.

“I regret handing you this,” he told Albarella. It was a letter he had sent to Frank, returned stamped with the letters KIA in red.

His voice shaking now, Albarella pointed to the triangular wooden box resting on the mantelpiece of his North Valley Stream home. “That’s his flag over there,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “I was the last one to see him alive.”

The voyage home

Months passed, and it was now 1945. Albarella was eligible for a 30-day leave, and on the first leg of the journey back home, he and his fellow soldiers had to escort about 60 elite German SS Trooper prisoners of war.

“Boy, they were arrogant,” he recalled.

It was a two-week journey by land and sea before he was greeted with what he said was “the most awesome sight”: the Statue of Liberty. After nearly three years, he had returned home.

Two weeks into his leave time, he was called to report to Fort Dix, N.J. “I had a sneaky feeling we were probably going to the Pacific,” he said, “but no, it turns out I got a discharge instead.”

The war was over, at least in Europe, and now, he said, he “was just another soldier going home.”

At his discharge, the Army pinned four Bronze Stars to his lapel, he recalled. He didn’t make much of the recognition. “It still cost me the same to take the subway,” he said.

Life after the war was hard. After moving to Valley Stream, he said, he “bounced around” in various jobs, trying to make ends meet. He considered re-enlisting as the United States geared up for the Korean War. He had been offered an officer’s position, which would have meant a higher salary. Instead, his wife, Peggy, tore up the letter.

He worked first as an electrical union worker, and then as a salesman for a steel fabrication company. He did well in the steel business, rising through the ranks. But his partner there had a horseracing gambling problem, and sank the business by siphoning revenue to feed his addiction.

Albarella struck out to start his own firm, founding Alba Steel Fabricators in New Hyde Park in 1960. There he worked in sales until he closed the business in 2014. He and Peggy had three children together, and adopted a fourth. They had eight grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren.

Albarella added another floor to his house, anticipating that family would stay with him. A few family memberrs, such as his son Frankie, named for Albarella’s late younger brother, lived upstairs for a time. His grandson Scott Jr. is planning to move in after he gets married next summer. Albarella said that in light of his age, 98, he is sometimes taken aback by requests from his family to attend major life events, noting incredulously, “You do know how old I am.”

His daughter-in-law, Karen, who calls him “Dad,” said he is “the best man I know.”

“Nobody needs to be recognized more,” she added, “for his sacrifices and all his hard work and love and his kindness as a true gentleman. [He is] loved by all he has touched.”

Peggy died in 2010, and Albarella bought a plot at Calverton Cemetery to serve as their final resting place. He requested a tombstone to be made for her, but after he visited a few times, it still had not been installed. Then, one day, it appeared. He was happy it had arrived, he said, and as he made the hour-long return journey by car to Valley Stream, he realized something that struck him about the stone.

He quickly made a U-turn and returned to the grave. He realized that in addition to Peggy’s, his name had also been engraved on the stone. The plot was, after all, reserved for both of them.

Now, every time he visits her, Albarella said, he makes note of his name, and says quietly to himself, “Not yet.”