WWII soldier's family fights for his honor

In a wartime portrait, Tony DiNardo with wife Regina. He failed to save his Army discharge papers.
In a wartime portrait, Tony DiNardo with wife Regina. He failed to save his Army discharge papers.
Posted: May 18, 2012

The souvenirs Tony DiNardo saved from the war were parceled into five lockboxes he stashed around his South Philadelphia rowhouse. This week, when those chests were pried open, DiNardo’s family learned a little more about a life he’d only hinted at.

He kept a copy of the Evening Bulletin from Dec. 8, 1941, with its banner headline, “Bombers Attack Hawaii Twice,” and its bookend, the victory edition from nearly four years later that trumpeted, “The War Is Over.”

He saved his knit cap with the bullet hole, some crumpled Italian lira, and a crisp Nazi armband. He saved his Purple Heart with three oak clusters — he was wounded four times.

“Dad was a pack rat,” says Connie DiNardo, who is visiting from New York, where she works in the music industry. “He saved a $13 hospital bill from the day I was born and a washing machine receipt from 1946.”

He just didn’t think to save his discharge papers.

And so, since DiNardo died Sunday at age 88, his family has been frantically tearing apart the old place at 29th and Dover, hoping to be able to prove to the funeral home the obvious — that a former POW who spent nearly seven decades with a German machine-gun bullet lodged in his neck was worthy of a burial with military honors.

“I thought his wounds would be proof enough,” his daughter says.

She says she should have planned for this day. “But who knew what sort of paperwork they’d need?”

For three days the family pored through his belongings to find the missing document. That search led to a conversation with an 89-year-old retired crop duster from Indiana who remembers with sharp detail the easygoing soldier from South Philly he called “Ant.”

“We met in basic training in Georgia,” says Dwight Dillon. “After basic, with no furlough, we shipped to Norfolk, then took a boat to Casablanca, where we rode an old-fashioned 40-and-eight train — 40 men and eight horses — to Tunisia.”

They were 18-year-old members of the 143d Infantry Regiment, Company G, although DiNardo would later be reassigned to a different unit.

DiNardo was tall and fit, with dark hair that curled over his forehead, and a girl back home.

The fighting was over in Africa when they landed, and they just missed the invasion of Salerno, Italy, in September 1943. Soon enough they found action.

“We fought in a little town called San Pietro,” Dillon said. “From there we went up toward Monte Cassino, and tried to cross the Rapido River, but we got slaughtered.”

He described his buddy as a cool customer, “even in combat.”

After the two were split up, DiNardo fought through France. Near the Rhine, he was struck down in Alsace Lorraine. The Germans took him prisoner and moved him to a camp near Stuttgart, where doctors removed two bullets but left the third. He used to tell his children he had kept healthy by making soup from dandelions he’d pick through the bars.

Connie remembers her aunt tearing up as she described the sight of her brother walking down the street after his discharge, home safe.

DiNardo married his sweetheart, Regina Parisi. This Feb. 14, he told his daughter that the couple had been valentines for 70 years.

For years Connie envisioned military honors for the man who had given so much. When the funeral home, Gangemi’s on South Broad, told her it would need to see discharge papers, she panicked.

She put out a call for help on Facebook, and called every politician she could. Sen. Bob Casey’s office told her of a form that could provide emergency records.

Turns out that wasn’t necessary. Vincent Gangemi Jr. was able to get the information he needed from a clerk at the VA hospital who confirmed DiNardo had served. “Privacy laws are a big deal,” Gangemi explained. He contacted the Army, which will send a couple of soldiers to the service Friday to play “Taps” on the bugle.

Tony DiNardo, who saw so much action as a young man, then happily settled into a career at the Post Office, will be buried in his Army uniform.

“How about that?” his daughter says. “It fits.”

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917, drubin@phillynews.com or @danielrubin on Twitter.

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