WAPPINGERS FALLS – Emilio Ricci died on July 18, 1943, killed during a Japanese counterattack as United States forces were fighting to secure the Solomon Islands.
There was no way he could have known the Purple Heart medal he earned in that moment would come home to New Haven, Connecticut – and then disappear. Or that it would turn up in an attic in Wappingers Falls decades later and finally be handed over on the 71st anniversary of his death to a nephew he would never meet.
But that’s exactly what happened, as 68-year-old David Ricci of West Haven, Connecticut, came to Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 5913 in Wappingers Falls Friday to collect the long-lost marker of his uncle’s ultimate sacrifice.
“I can’t,” David Ricci said to the small gathering inside the VFW, “thank everybody enough.”
David Ricci, a former Marine who served in Vietnam, said he began researching his uncle a few years ago.
Emilio Ricci was a combat medic who served in the Army’s 118th Medical Battalion, 43rd Infantry Division.
He was born in 1918 in New Haven. According to newspaper accounts, he worked at a family-owned gas station and joined the Army in March of 1941.
His family believes he was shot rushing to the aid of comrades during the Japanese attack on Munda, New Georgia, Solomon Islands.
His nephew knew a Purple Heart had been awarded, but it was not in the family’s possession.
In 2011, renovations began at the Wappingers Falls VFW post. There in the attic, post officials found a medal with Emilio Ricci’s name on it. To this day, no one knows how it got there.
The medal was returned through the efforts of two men.
One is Richard Gerbeth Jr. of Wappingers Falls, an Iraq war veteran and Purple Heart recipient.
The other is Army National Guard Capt. Zacharia Fike, a veteran of combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan from Vermont who founded Purple Hearts Reunited, an organization that returns lost or stolen military medals to their recipients or their families.
Using Internet searches, Gerbeth and Fike found an online post from David Ricci seeking information about his uncle.
A phone call later, David Ricci learned that not only did the two men have the Purple Heart, but also the official award letter from Secretary of War Henry Stimson to Emilio Ricci’s father.
“Let me in communicating to you the country’s deep sympathy,” Stimson wrote, “also express to you its gratitude for his valor and devotion.”
Who could have known that 71 years later and thousands of miles from where Emilio Ricci took his last breath, a small group of dedicated men and women would gather to do so again.