Pittsford woman never forgot her Uncle Joe, who was killed in WWII
Shawn Dowd, @sdowdphoto
ROCHESTER, N.Y. – For more than 70 years, Mia Verkennis tended to the grave of an American soldier in her Dutch village, knowing nothing about him beyond what was inscribed on its white marble cross:
“Joseph P. Geraci, Pfc. 26 Inf. 1 Div. New York, Nov. 17, 1944.”
Verkennis didn’t know Geraci lived in Rochester, New York, or that he was 21 years old when he died, or that he had a job at Bausch & Lomb waiting for him at home.
She didn’t know he was the only son of Italian immigrant parents, or that he had three sisters, or that none of them knew he was dead when she began caring for his final resting place.
But like them, Verkennis never forgot Geraci, who was one of about 17,800 American soldiers killed in World War II and buried in the Netherlands American Cemetery in the village of Margraten.
At least once a year since 1945, Verkennis has visited Geraci’s grave to lay flowers, pray, and reflect on his sacrifice. On Memorial Day she will do the same.
She is one of thousands of Dutch people, schools, businesses and social organizations, who have adopted the headstones of fallen Americans there as their own – although the cemetery is formally maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Most of the adopters are strangers to the kin of their American wards, just as Verkennis was to Geraci’s relatives until last year. Then, with the help of an English-speaking friend, Verkennis tracked down and contacted Geraci’s living nieces.
“We can’t thank her enough,” said Donna Hooker, whose late mother was Geraci’s sister.
‘Nobody ever talked about Uncle Joe’
Like Verkennis, Hooker, 72, never knew Geraci or much about him, either. The closest she got to him was studying a framed military-issued portrait of him that sat in her grandmother’s dining room cabinet and wondering what happened to him.
“All we knew was he was killed in the war,” Hooker said. “Nobody ever talked about Uncle Joe. They never mentioned him. Never. We didn’t know why. The only thing we could figure was his death was such a shock.”
Geraci enlisted in the Army in January 1943 and was deployed overseas in September 1944 with the 26th Regiment of the 1st Infantry Division.
That November, he marched into the Hurtgen Forest on the German-Belgian border, a landscape straight out of Grimms’ fairy tales.
“The Hurtgen Forest is a seemingly impenetrable mass, a vast, undulating, blackish-green ocean stretching as far as the eye can see,” the U.S. Army’s official historian wrote of the territory. “Upon entering the forest, you want to drop things behind you to mark your path, as Hansel and Gretel did with their breadcrumbs.”
But instead of witches hiding in the 50 square miles of towering fir trees, there were Nazis hunkered in well-camouflaged fortifications. Pine needles blanketing the forest floor concealed mines known as “Bouncing Betties” that sprung into the air and detonated at waist height.
Geraci’s division was to pin down the Nazis in the woods to keep them from reinforcing the front line farther to the north. It was a bad idea.
The battle, fought over three bloody months, has been described as “a defeat of the first magnitude.” Casualties numbered between 33,000 to 55,000 American soldiers killed or wounded in the forest. Geraci was one of them.
The United States needed a place to bury its dead.
‘We never did get a letter from my brother’
The 1,500 inhabitants of Margraten, having been recently liberated from Nazi occupation by the Americans, welcomed the fallen out of a sense of gratitude and duty. The mayor hosted commanders of the American burial effort in his home. Villagers helped dig.
The first body was buried Nov. 10, 1944, a week to the day before Geraci was killed. Between then and the spring of 1945, hundreds of bodies were trucked in daily.
“The work was piling up; we needed hundreds of workers,” wrote Joseph Shomon, the commanding officer in his 1947 memoir, “Crosses in the Wind.” “The odor from the bodies was getting worse and could be smelled all the way to the village.”
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Over the next two years, some 17,740 American soldiers would be buried there. Many of them would later be disinterred and repatriated at the request of their families. Today, about 8,300 graves remain.
Geraci’s family never took the War Department up on its offer in 1946 to return his remains to Rochester.
“They never wanted the body back because my grandmother always said, ‘How would we know it was him?’” Hooker, a retired middle school history teacher, said.
The Geraci family had reason to be skeptical.
In December 1944, about three weeks after Geraci’s division went into the forest, his parents received a telegram informing them their son had been “slightly wounded” on Nov. 17. A month later, the War Department sent them a temporary address for him.
His family wrote him but received no response.
The following April, another telegram reported Geraci as “missing” since Nov. 17. Then a letter arrived in July informing the family the War Department had no information on Geraci.
The timeline was chronicled in a desperate letter to the War Department written that summer by Hooker’s mother, Josephine Sisca, pleading for news about her brother.
“We never did get a letter from my brother since the day he was wounded,” she concluded.
Not until October 1945 would the Geracis learn he was dead. Another year would pass before the War Department would write again, informing the family he was buried in Margraten.
“They say my grandmother’s hair turned white overnight when she heard the news,” Hooker said.
‘I have waited 70 years for this’
Records kept by the family from those years show Geraci was identified by two dog tags around his neck. He had on him a Gruen wristwatch, Polaroid sunglasses and a fountain pen.
He was buried Aug. 31, 1945, nine months after his death, in Plot R, Row 5, Grave 105.
That was where, and roughly when, Verkennis first became acquainted with him.
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The cemetery’s grave adoption program was already underway, and Verkennis, who was 15 then and went by Mia Smeets, assumed responsibility for the resting places of Geraci and two other servicemen, according to her “adoption card” provided by an official with the cemetery’s grave adoption foundation.
One of her servicemen was later repatriated. The other, Air Force Sgt. Jim Garvey of Chicago, remained.
Geraci and Garvey were a mystery to Verkennis as she went about living the life they never would. She would work in a department store, marry, have three children, and become a grandmother, a great-grandmother and finally a widow. She now resides in an assisted-living facility.
But her attention to them never wavered. She said through an interpreter that she visits them every Memorial Day and on the village’s annual commemoration of its liberation in September.
Verkennis, now 89, said she would often wonder who the soldiers were. In late 2017, she resolved to find out.
Maria Bohler, the English-speaking friend who helped Verkennis track down and contact the Geraci family, recalled that she barely knew Verkennis when Verkennis arrived on her doorstep one day and asked for her help.
“She said, ‘I know you speak English. Can you help me find these soldiers’ families?’” Bohler said.
Ton Hermes, the cemetery’s grave adoption foundation official, estimated that less than half of adopters have contact with their servicemen’s families. He invited relatives of the fallen to inquire about their adopters through the foundation’s website.
“Commemorating a World War II soldier together bring awareness of the vulnerability of society and awareness of the freedom we live in,” Hernes wrote in an email.
With Bohler’s help, Verkennis penned an introductory letter in English to relatives of her servicemen.
“I have waited 70 years for this,” she wrote Hooker in February 2018. “Each year I visit the cemetery to pay my respects to your uncle. On Memorial Day there are flowers and American and Dutch flags.”
“Please know,” her letter ended, “that my thoughts often go out to your uncle, you, and the rest of your family.”
Since that first interaction, the correspondence between Verkennis and the Geraci and Garvey families has blossomed. Some of Garvey’s relatives recently visited Verkennis.
“Every chance we get we send her pictures,” Hooker said. “It’s very comforting to know what she’s done for Uncle Joe.”
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