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Righting a war record and remembering young Soldier's sacrifice during World War II

By Col. Richard Goldenberg | New York National Guard | June 16, 2017

ALBANY, N.Y. - For 69 years the gravestone of Army Pfc. Silvio Campanella, killed in France while serving in the 42nd Infantry Division during World War II, had the wrong death date.

Veterans and current members of the famed "Rainbow Division" gathered at St. Agnes Cemetery here June 14 to correct that date - changing it from Jan. 31 to Jan. 19, 1945 - and tell the story of Campanella's death, which had been secret for a generation.

Campanella and the 42nd Infantry Division, now a part of the New York Army National Guard, got caught up in a vicious defensive battle against a German attack called Operation Nordwind in southern France. It was a companion attack to the more famous Battle of the Bulge in Belgium.

Campanella was one of the 42nd Soldiers who tried to stop that attack, although he wasn't killed in action. He was shot while a prisoner of the German Army.

"What brings us together here is our need to pay a debt of gratitude to an all but forgotten Soldier. We also feel the need to set things right – as right as we can – to honor him," said retired Army Maj. Patrick Chaisson, historian for the Rainbow Division Veterans Foundation, which provided the new grave marker.

"Well, we are correcting a mistake that was made almost 70 years ago," Chaisson said.

Joining Chaisson in correcting that mistake were members of a New York National Guard Color Guard from the 42nd Infantry Division's headquarters in Troy, New York, and currently serving members and veterans of the division.

Campanella family members, including his surviving sister, Yolanda Campanella Robilotto, also took part in the event.

Silvio Campanella, born in 1923 in Albany, tried to follow his brothers into the Navy. But poor eyesight led him to enlist in the Army instead at age 19 in January 1943. After basic training, he was assigned to the 42nd Infantry Division, known as the Rainbow Division for its shoulder insignia and its WWI service.

Campanella deployed in December 1944, arriving in the front lines with the division just days before the onslaught of Operation Nordwind on New Year's Day.

In January 1945 his unit, Company A, 232nd Infantry Regiment, was defending a French village called Sessenheim without tanks or artillery support.

It was a close quarter fight of small infantry units. Small pockets of infantry Soldiers found themselves surrounded and overwhelmed.
"Campanella and his fellow G.I.s fought bravely, but their rifles and hand grenades were no match for Nazi tanks," Chaisson said. "Those tanks began destroying Sessenheim house by house."

Campanella found himself with 18-20 other Soldiers as German prisoners on January 19, 1945.

"The Germans commenced to move in from all sides. We held them off until around noon," wrote Staff Sgt. James Nichols, also from Company A in his report of September 1945.

"At approximately 11:30, I gave the order to surrender," Nichols report says. "Then we shoved a white sheet out of the window, destroyed all of our equipment, personal belongings and any other items that might have given our organization away. Then leading the column, I marched out of the house, hands over my head," he wrote of the event.

But the entire group would not find their way to a prisoner of war camp. In the midst of the battle, the Germans sought retribution for what they believed was the intentional killing of one of their unit medics.

Sgt. Gerald O'Brien of Company A described what happened in his September, 1945 statement to investigators:

"I saw the group of Americans lined up, and I saw a German officer making a lot of threatening gestures and heard him yelling about the shooting of a German medic by Americans. Then the German officer pulled seven more men out of the group and sent them up the street in (the) charge of a German soldier; they went up the street and that is the last I saw of them," O'Brien recounted.

One of those seven men was Silvio Campanella and his fate was sealed that afternoon when his German captor fired on the seven, killing him and five others.

"Several of these dead Soldiers were hastily buried by French civilians in the village of Sessenheim. Their remains were later recovered by the U.S. Army, but due to a bureaucratic foul-up these Soldiers' death certificates were all wrong. The Army recorded the date they were found – January 31st – not the actual day they were killed – January 19th," Chaisson said.

Campanella's remains were reinterred in Albany in 1948 with the incorrect date.

"That's the simple explanation, but nothing in life is ever this simple. There is a terrible secret to Pvt. Campanella's death, a truth so horrible that the one person who lived to tell it kept this story inside him for decades," Chaisson said.

One Soldier captured with Campanella did survive. He was Pvt. George Sotak and he left this harrowing account in a letter to weapons platoon veteran Sam Polis in February 1946:

"When they picked us out, we marched up the road a couple of yards, went through a barn and stopped before a couple of barbed wire fences. I could sense what was going to happen, but couldn't make a run for it. We were lined up with our backs toward the krauts.

"Then there was a burst of fire and I found myself flat on the ground. I knew I was hit but wasn't hurting, Sotak wrote. "The other boys were hollering from the pain and got more slugs until all was quiet. Then they came over and kicked us on the soles of our feet to make sure we were dead."

Sotak played dead until nightfall, with bullet wounds to his left shoulder, lung and arm. After dark, he escaped back to American lines. Treated for his injuries, Sotak eventually made a full recovery. He also made a full report on the incident to headquarters, which was classified after the war.

With investigators unable to identify the unit or enemy personnel involved, it remain unsolved and unprosecuted.

"George Sotak carried in his heart the memories of that awful day for decades," Chaisson said at the ceremony. "He never discussed this incident, afraid it would upset the families of those who were lost. Finally, just before his own death, Sotak allowed his comrades to learn of the Sessenheim murders."

After Sotek's account was published in 2015, two daughters of other WWII Rainbow Division veterans – Suellen McDaniel and Kathy Hemard – began to research the incident and identified all the Soldiers involved, Chaisson explained.

"They discovered that all six grave markers – three in the states, three in European military cemeteries – had incorrect dates of death. Suellen McDaniel made it her mission to get all these markers fixed," he said.

"Thanks to Suellen's work, and to the tireless efforts of Albany Diocese Cemeteries Historian, Kelly Ann Grimaldi, we now have a correct grave marker for Private First Class Silvio C. Campanella, Company A, 232nd Regiment, 42nd Infantry Division, United States Army, Killed in Action January 19th, 1945 at age 21," Chaisson said.

"We remember him and honor him and take the time to show our deep respect and gratitude," Grimaldi said. "I would like to think St. Agnes Cemetery and staff gave his family some measure of comfort."

The group placed memorial wreaths at the gravesite and New York Army National Guard members of the 42nd Infantry Division provided final military honors.

"What happened to Campanella and his fellow G.I.s at Sessenheim is an atrocity, an obscenity," Chaisson said. "That is war. Yet there is honor in service. Many of us gathered here are combat veterans of the Rainbow Division, or veterans of other proud military units. We all can find some connection to this young man, who sacrificed his life for freedom over seventy years ago."