Joe Mandese—The Burden of Remembrance

Last month Bobby Cannon commented on “Felice “Phil” Vacca, Part 2—Camp 59 and Escape.”

“This is an amazing story.” he wrote. “My grandfather is Joe Mandese. He is alive and well at age 94. Mario, Jim, and Tony [Vacca] visited their house in the ’60s in Union City, NJ. My grandfather now resides in Lyndhurst, NJ with his wife of 68 years. My whole family thanks you for this story and we can add some additional details if you are interested.”

I wrote that I was very interested, and Bobby then sent two newspaper clippings, photos, and a short interview his mother, Bernadette Cannon, did with Joe 20 years ago.

Here is the first article:


In memory of lost war heroes
Lyndhurst holds 24-hour POW vigil

By C. Rae Jung
Managing Editor

October 2002
South Bergenite (New Jersey)

Caption: The burden of remembrance—Commissioner Tom Graffam, a Vietnam War veteran, delivers a speech at a vigil honoring American POW/MIAs, below. Those who came back, such as Joe Mandese of Lyndhurst, above, often have to carry the memories of war alone in pain. Staff photos/Jaimie Winters & C. Rae Jung

LYNDHURST—The table was set for one, but the chair remained empty. The glass on the table was put upside down; it stayed that way for 24 hours. And local veterans stood guard into the wee hours, in memory of those who did not come home.

A symbolic vigil took place in front of the township hall on Sept. 20 and Sept. 21 where attendees expressed their hope for the return of prisoners of war and those still missing in action.

As the nation’s leaders debate a war against Iraq, local veterans’ organizations wanted to “bring attention to the plight of all prisoners of war,” said Tom Witt, commander of the Lyndhurst American Legion.

The vigil also brought memories to some local residents.

“I was a little shaky,” said Joe Mandese, 83, who attended the vigil’s opening reception. A former prisoner of war during World War II, Mandese remembers vividly the course of action that tore his life asunder.

He was taken prisoner in December 1942 in North Africa by the Germans, Mandese said. The Italians flew him to Sicily, and then to Northern Italy, where he was put in a prison camp along with other Americans. “Conditions were very bad,” Mandese recalled.

After 10 months, Mandese said, he escaped the camp on Sept. 14, 1943, with four other American soldiers. They were on the loose for the next 10 months in northern Italy, living in the mountains. “We slept in haystacks,” he said.

It wasn’t until after the Invasion of Normandy that Mandese and his fellow escapees, who refers to as his brothers, rejoined the American troops. “On June 6, 1944, we heard about [the Normandy Invasion] on the radio,” Mandese recalled. “We knew it was time to leave.”

They walked 20 miles to Fermo, Italy, a town that had just been liberated by a Polish troop. The Polish took the escapees to the British army, and in July, 1944, the five escapees finally reached the Americans in Foggia, Italy. “ We were prisoners and escaped prisoners for 665 days,” Mandese said.

Mandese lost touch with the men he escaped with now. All he knows of them is that one died. But the ordeal did leave an indelible mark on Mandese. “I came out with a 50 percent disability,” he said. “I have a nervous disorder.”

Mandese still has recurring flashbacks and anxiety attacks, according to his wife Ann. “The older he gets, it becomes worse,” she said. “You can’t erase memories.”

But there are still soldiers thought to be held as prisoners of war. The organizers handed out pictures and fliers about Michael Scott Speicher of Jacksonville, Fla., who many believe was captured during the Gulf War and remains detained in Iraq. Speicher was initially reported as “killed in action” until the U.S. government later changed his status to “missing in action” in January 2001. Speicher has been the focus of ongoing media and public attention.

“By using a national figure to bring people’s attention to the event, we can publicize local people,” explained John Deveney of the Lyndhurst American Legion.

The vigil, which started with an opening ceremony at 4 p.m. Sept. 20, had three-men shifts of 36 men in uniform taking turns every two hours until 4 p.m. the next day.


Joe Mandese and the four men he calls his “brothers.” At rear (left to right) are Peter Calvagno, Edmond Petrelli, and Joe Mandese. In front (left to right) are Tony Spicola, and Phil Vacca.

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