At 90 years old and with his mind fading, Emmanuel K. Nicosia finds himself reliving moments from the Second World War that for decades he refused to revisit.
His wife, Kathryn, says that in just the last year, her husband has spoken more about his military service in Europe than in any of the other 65 years she has known him.
They are not always happy memories, but they are an important part of his life that he is coming to terms with in what time he has left. He is not alone. As mortality knocks on the doors of many World War II veterans, they can’t help but look back to the greatest and most daring journey of their youth.
So let us together walk down this history-strewn road of Nicosia’s with some help from his beloved spouse, a retired nurse.
The youngest of 10 children, Nicosia worked as a plumber’s helper at age 19 and lived in the Clover Place home of his widowed mother, Mary, in Cheektowaga. Nicosia and a few other siblings still at home helped pay the household bills.
It was a cozy, secure arrangement for Nicosia until one day a draft notice arrived.
Mechanically inclined, the plumber’s helper was assigned to the Army’s 14th Armored Division and received stateside training in how to repair tank engines. But the real training, he said, happened in Europe – nothing beats on-the-job training.
“We would get a call to remove a tank from the front lines, and I would go up in a tank that did not have the big gun on it and tow the broken tank back,” he recalls. “My first job was to get the disabled tank and its crew off the front lines.
“Then we would repair it. Some had big holes in them, but my job was to fix the engines. The tank went down the line. We’d repair so much, then another unit would do other repairs. We didn’t junk them. We’d fix them, and then they’d go back upfront.”
But don’t be mistaken about the risk. The soldiers who kept the tanks greased and rolling under the command of Gen. George S. Patton Jr. sometimes paid with their lives.
“Anyone who says they wanted to be on the front lines is crazy. Who the hell wants to be that close?” Nicosia says. “Anyplace near the front, you’re liable to get killed.
“I lost my buddy that way. He was in the recovery outfit with me. He went up to fix a tank and got a slug right in the head. He had five kids and a wife. I’d met them when we served in Kentucky.”
That memory explodes into sadness, and Nicosia falls into silence. But other memories of unexpected kindness surface. Civilians caught in the crossfire opened their homes to him and other Americans.
“They’d let us use their basements so we could get under cover,” he says. “One time, they made beds for us and warmed them up with stones they heated in the oven and put inside our blankets.”
Yet these memories are tempered by unforgettable sights.
“One time, we were invited into a German home, and when they opened the basement, there were all these people huddled together hiding. They thought they would be killed by us.”
When the war ended at long last, Nicosia was glad to return home and try to forget. He married Kathryn Spring the same year he was honorably discharged. They raised a family of four children. Instead of returning to plumbing, Nicosia worked as a cement mason. He poured and shaped driveways and residential and commercial building foundations.
Kathryn worked as a registered nurse, eventually retiring from the Erie County Home and Infirmary in Alden.
Now their days are peppered with war memories.
“I think he’s going back and experiencing emotions,” Kathryn Nicosia said. And with the floodgates open, tears sometimes flow from Emmanuel Nicosia’s brown eyes that have seen so much.
But of all the things these war memories could induce, at least one is positive: Kathryn Nicosia says her aging warrior is finally finding “peace of mind.”
Emmanuel K. Nicosia, 90
War zone: Europe
Years of service: 1942-46
Most prominent honors: World War II Victory Medal, American Defense Service Medal
Specialty: Armored infantry mechanic