Gaetano and Caroline Simonelli were just children on a farm in Nazi-occupied Italy in 1943 when a fighter plane screamed across the sky and crashed within feet of their home.
The pilot was killed. The Simonelli family, devout Roman Catholics, buried him right there on the farm. In a Rock Hill cemetery on Monday – 71 years later – an old man named Bobby Williams came up to Gaetano “Guy” Simonelli, now 81, and his sister, Caroline Simonelli Gonzalez, now 79. “I thank you for what you did for this family,” said Williams.
“I thank you for what your family did for us and freedom,” said Gaetano Simonelli. These siblings came to Rock Hill – the place 22-year-old pilot Neill Walker called home. They sat with the family of an American hero who had died just feet away from them. All of these people – born in Italy and born in Rock Hill – shared a memorial service for a man most in attendance had never met.
A man who had dropped out of college to go fight fascists, because that is what the sons of Rock Hill farmers did during World War II. Walker was a man whose story can be told because of his family’s determination to find the Italian-born immigrants to America who buried him after the Nazis shot him down. “He was fighting for our freedom,” said Gaetano Simonelli. “The plane crashed right next to our house.” Caroline Simonelli Gonzalez remembers the day as if it just happened. “You don’t forget something like that,” she said. “We never even knew his name.” The British Spitfire Walker was flying – on loan to the U.S. as it entered the war in Europe – had lost its wings when it crashed near that farm outside Arce, Italy, about halfway between Rome and Naples. Walker had named the plane “Jennie,” in honor of his momma back home in Rock Hill. Gaetano and Caroline watched a German soldier pull Walker from the cockpit. The soldier allowed the family – particularly their mother, Lucia Calcagni Simonelli, a gale force of a woman – to bury Walker with a Christian service the next day. “That pilot was some mother’s son; he deserved to be buried with dignity,” Calcagni, a rural peasant who could not read or write but had the heart of a lion, would tell people in her adopted home of America – right up until she died about 20 years ago.
A simple wooden cross, with no name, marked the spot where Neill Walker was buried by this family of Catholics near the historic Monte Cassino monastery – the principal monastery of the Benedictine Order, founded by St. Benedict almost 1,500 years ago. Walker, who had flown scores of missions, was listed as missing in action for years before it was determined he had been killed.
In February 1945, his grave was found, and dental records later confirmed that the pilot was indeed this young man from the Lesslie area outside Rock Hill. He was reburied in a military cemetery, then brought home in 1948 to be buried with honors at the historic cemetery outside Neely’s Creek Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. That year, 1948, was also when the Simonelli and Calcagni families came to America, to Canton, Ohio. That could have been the last link to these Italian immigrants that no one in Rock Hill had ever heard of anyway. But George Feindel III, a World War II buff, refused to quit trying to find out what happened to his cousin, the war hero. It took 19 years of research – most before records were easily accessible online – but Feindel and another cousin, Bobby Walker, found the Simonellis with legwork and an ancestry research website.
The same people, kids in 1943, who watched heroic pilot Neill Walker crash and whose family buried him. “It was not a needle in a haystack,” Feindel said. “It was a needle in a thousand haystacks.” Plans were made for Gaetano and Caroline to travel from Ohio to Rock Hill. A memorial service was set up at the grave where Neill Walker had been buried since 1948.
Monday’s ceremony was simple. Like all simple things, it was beautiful. About a hundred people – including a few old enough to remember the Neill Walker who volunteered for war and died in war – were in attendance. Those who had worked so hard to bring it together, Feindel and Bobby Walker and others, were part of this magical reunion of families connected by war and death, honor and love. The American Legion Post 34 Honor Guard fired rifles in salute. Frank Walker, a Vietnam War combat helicopter pilot, played “Taps” on the bugle. Frank Walker’s late father, Marshall Walker, was a bomber pilot in World War II, just like his pilot first cousin and buddy, Neill Walker. Gaetano Simonelli and his sister sat on the front row with the family. All those people named Walker and Gettys and Williams and other relatives wouldn’t have had it any other way.
After all, these people – whose family cared enough to bury Neill Walker in 1943 because he was somebody’s son – have always been, and always will be, family.