Grateful French citizens perpetuate memory of fallen Monessen soldier
Part 1 of 3
Were he alive today, Paolo (Paul) Denitti would be 92 – most likely surrounded by his family and regaling them with stories about his life.
But he never received the opportunity to pursue a full life, and he didn't even enjoy the festivities of a 25th birthday.
Denitti, a Monessen steelworker, and 74 other American soldiers, all members of the U.S. Army's Sixth Armored Division, were killed in a bloody World War II battle with the Nazis in early August 1944 at Plabennec, France.
He was only 24 when he died on Aug. 10.
Like the others, Denitti is buried at the Saint James Cemetery in Saint James, France, obviously never forgotten by his family and friends and honored in a very special way by the grateful citizens of that region nearly 4,000 miles away.
The continuing gratitude – 68 years after Denitti's death – was brought to the attention of the Denitti family earlier this year by Clemence Moalli, 17, of Brest (Brittany), France, a young woman wise and compassionate beyond her years. Saint James is located about 250 miles from the Brest/Plabennec area.
“I saw ‘Saving Private Ryan' about three years ago because my parents told my sisters and me that it was important to see this movie,” Moalli said. “I was so moved that I decided to do something. I was sure that my destiny was to help remember these brave Americans and do everything that people here do to show their neverending appreciation for their sacrifices for our liberty.” The Battle of Plabennec on Aug. 8-10, 1944, was a major event in the liberation of France.
“My mother told me that she had read an article about people who take care of several graves in different American cemeteries in our country,” Moalli recalled. “My parents and I went to the cemetery of Colleville in Normandy in 2010. We arrived at the Wall of the Missing, so I wasn't able to see all the graves, but when I went upstairs, I fell into tears. At each grave I was crying more and more. I was telling myself that all of these soldiers were dead because of one man (Adolf Hitler) and had sacrificed their lives for my country.” Moalli initially chose three graves as part of her commitment to placing flowers each year – a pilot killed on D-Day, a soldier who died on Christmas Day and an unknown soldier.
Moalli's determination to honor the fallen Americans subsequently took her to Plabennec, about 250 miles from Brest, in 2011. She took pictures of the names of the 75 men killed in action and whose names are inscribed on the large monument at the Plabennec Memorial and Honor Roll. One of those names is Paul Denitti.
Ensuing research on the Ancestry website put Moalli in touch with Marge Scanlon Denitti of Perryopolis, Paul's sister-in-law and the wife of his younger brother, Matthew Denitti Jr.
“It certainly took me by surprise,” said Marge Denitti, who has compiled an extensive history of the Denitti family over the years. “I didn't know what to think. Clemence, who was 16 at the time, explained that Paul died at a place called Lormeau during the fighting of Brest. She said she was part of an association called Brest 44 that honors the Americans buried in France. She was asking for permission to place flowers at Paul's grave. I told her that would be fine and greatly appreciated by the family. I checked with the others but I knew they would agree.”
Moalli became a member of Les Fleurs de la Memoire (Flowers of Memory), which cares for the graves of more than 13,000 U.S. soldiers, sailors and airmen killed in France during World War II and who are buried in cemeteries there. In that capacity, she is the “godmother” to the graves of Paul Denitti and Lowell A. Goebel at Saint James and eight soldiers – Paul F. Schrull, Alfred W. Schmidt, Wayne Gable, Anton Baliel, Robert N. Weyrick, Alton R. Keller, Charles Molinsky and George N. Cowell — at Normandy Cemetery.
“We have to come to the cemeteries at least once a year,” Moalli said. “This year, however, I went to Paul's grave three times. I am always moved to go there.” Denitti's nephew Frank Steck and his wife Debbie of Smock experienced the emotional gratitude of the French this year as they attended the Aug. 8-9 ceremonies commemorating the Battle of Plabennec.
“It is difficult to put into words the kindness and appreciation of the people there,” said Steck, the son of Paul Denitti's sister, Philomena (Phyllis) Fall of Monessen. “You can see it in their faces. They welcomed us with open arms, embraced us and made us feel at home for this moving experience.”
His wife agreed.
“Many of the older citizens who participated in the ceremonies are people who lived there during World War II and they recall firsthand what happened to their country and how the Americans and Allied forces liberated them,” she said. “They were smiling as they welcomed us, but tears also flowed freely from their eyes. It was obvious they and the generations that followed them – their sons and daughters – have emphasized the significance of what the Americans did for them. Even the young children holding flowers and waving American and French flags understood. They have been taught well.”
Frank Steck, who is retired after a long career with the Veterans Administration, said many Americans could learn from the French in the matter of appreciating veterans.
“As I read the names of the Americans memorialized on that large monument at Plabennec, I was reminded of just how much we owe the men and women who served our country in all wars,” he said. “The French honor them for returning freedom to them in World War II. Our gratitude must always be to those who made the ultimate sacrifice as well as those who served and returned home while fighting to preserve the liberty we have. I would hope that all generations of Americans understand and appreciate that.”
Ron Paglia is a freelance writer.