Hunter, miner, writer, union organizer, soldier, patriot.
These are just some of the words that describe my uncle, John Furiga, who died 75 years ago on our publication date (May 23) in 1944. It’s for him and the millions of brave fallen Americans like him that we celebrate Memorial Day this weekend.
Uncle John was a member of the first U.S. Special Forces unit during World War II and killed in action on the road to Rome.
To fully appreciate what it means to sacrifice your life for our country, you have to dig deeper in my uncle’s story.
One of the great treasures my father, Frank Furiga, and his sisters, Mary Furiga and Helen Lisak, left me is a trove of family history, including the story of Uncle John Furiga. Since he died 14 years before I was born, I never knew him.
Through the eyes of my father and aunts, and through their diligent work to know his fellow Special Forces comrades, I feel I know my Uncle John enough to write this in his honor.
My dad, himself a World War II vet and former POW after bailing out of his stricken B-17, loved his oldest brother and wrote about him in several remembrances that were published in various local histories in Washington County.
“His destiny was to be trapped for most of his working life in the coal fields,” my dad wrote in one story contributed to a local history book, “but his nature was that of a fervent idealist trying to better his life.”
That led to Uncle John organizing for what became the United Mine Workers in the 1930s, even writing for the Communist Party’s Daily Worker publication. It led to him befriending a socialite named Lauren Gilfillan, who came to the strike-torn coal fields near my dad’s hometown of Avella to write a best-selling book in 1934. Gilfillan spent a lot of time with Uncle John, and he even gave her the title for her book, “I Went to Pit College.” The title is a joke the poor miners told each other because they could never, ever afford to attend the University of Pittsburgh. Instead, they descended daily into the pit of whatever coal mine wasn’t yet played out.
My uncle turned to writing – articles, books, even screenplays (I have a few in my collection). Nothing was published. He even earned a patent for a new kind of car seat, but as my dad put it, it made a profit “only for the patent attorneys.”
When war came, Uncle John went. He was ready to fight for his country, but the Army, seeing he had been a coal miner, sent him to a coal mine in Wisconsin. Incensed, Uncle John signed up for the most hazardous duties he could find. As the first Special Forces unit formed (a joint U.S.-Canadian unit, no less), my uncle was accepted. From paratrooper school at Fort Benning to mountain fighting at Helena, Montana, Uncle John and his unit were trained for the most difficult behind-the-lines commando operations. Years after the war, the heroism of his unit would inspire the 1966 book “The Devil’s Brigade” and the 1968 movie of the same name.
My uncle never lived to see those tributes to his unit. Early on the morning of May 23, 1944, as the U.S. Fifth Army left the beaches of Anzio and charged up Highway 7 to Rome, a fierce German tank attack savaged his unit, killing more than half the men, including Uncle John, and wounding nearly all of the rest.
My dad saved his letters from Uncle John, including one written a few weeks before his death, while my dad was training as a bombardier in the States. Inside the letter was a serial number plate from a German Ju-88 bomber that my uncle had somehow pried out of the wreckage of one shot down near his position at Anzio. The Germans dive-bombed the U.S. troops nightly but couldn’t stop their advance. It stuns me that this hunk of metal went in a letter from my uncle in a World War II war zone, crossed the ocean in a ship, landed in my dad’s censored military mail, and I still have it today.
In his May 5 letter to my dad, my Uncle John confessed that even amid the horrors of war, he’d been down to the ocean. “Yes,” he wrote, “strange as it may seem, we manage to go down to the sea for an occasional swim.”
Though I never met him, I will never forget my Uncle John. His sacrifice is the real reason for all the parades, the speeches and, yes, even the picnics this weekend. Without that sacrifice, none of what we will do this weekend would be possible.
As you celebrate this weekend, may you remember all the Uncle Johns in your family, too. Happy Memorial Day!