V-J Day: Don’t ever forget that it happened

08/30/2014 10:14 PM

08/30/2014 10:17 PM

V-J Day is unlikely to cause a ripple this Tuesday as America digests its long Labor Day weekend.

But it is a day that has marked the entire lives of a Sun City Hilton Head man and his 92-year-old mother living at Bloom Memory Care in Bluffton.

“V-J Day to me is the day my dad got out of prison camp,” said Joe F. Fragale Jr.

His father, U.S. Army Air Corps Staff Sgt. Joseph F. Fragale Sr. of Buffalo, N.Y., was stationed in the Philippines when World War II broke out.

He survived the Bataan Death March and three and half years as a Japanese prisoner of war.

The lives of Joe and Risa Fragale tell the story of the high cost of war, peace, persecution and freedom.

He was a dashing young gunner with an outgoing personality when he met the smart, quiet Jewish girl in Manila. It was a most unlikely union. She was there because her family’s trail to escape the persecution of Jews had taken them from their home in Vienna, Austria, to Italy, Japan, Shanghai and then the Philippines.

Risa’s parents were not tickled about her attraction to him, but they hosted a simple wedding for their only child in their luxury apartment. The 19-year-old bride wore a wedding dress of white satin.

Three months later, all hell broke loose when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and then the Philippines.

On Christmas Eve 1941, Joe was allowed to go home and have dinner with his wife and her parents. He knew that the next day his base was to be evacuated. As he walked away from an uneasy dinner, Risa tried to follow him and he kept telling her to go back. That’s when she said, “Joey, I’m going to have your baby.”

She would not see him again until the end of 1945.

When Joe got home to Buffalo after V-J Day, he had beefed up from his weight of 80 to 90 pounds doing forced labor in a Japan coal mine. Little “Frankie,” as they called him, was 3 years old and dressed in a Navy outfit when he saw his father for the first time.

STOLEN CHILDHOOD

Risa Rechter Fragale had a happy, loving childhood.

And even though she was sometimes spooked by the large statues of Vienna, she enjoyed a cultured upbringing with her parents, Jacob and Sarah, owners of jewelry and import/export businesses that took them to exotic locations throughout the Orient.

Risa’s childhood was yanked away, however, on the day a classmate called her a “dirty Jew.”

The joyful memory of being with members of her father’s Orthodox family at Passover also was shattered when she realized later that everyone at that long table perished in the Holocaust.

Risa’s parents had escaped at about the time Joe joined the Army.

In war-torn Manila after the Japanese takeover, Risa found herself taking care of an infant and her parents at the same time. They were literally kicked out of their apartment to live in a slum.

Before dementia invaded her sharp mind, Risa was an accomplished musician, swimmer, bowler, ice skater and linguist. At only 17, she led the publicity for the first world-title boxing match ever held in the Philippines.

And when U.S. forces liberated the Philippines in late 1944, Risa quickly became secretary to the top brass.

An officer got spots for Risa and the baby aboard a ship headed to America. She could go find Joe’s family, they said. But Risa had to make a dreadful decision: forge a new life for her baby in the safety of America, or stay to care for her parents.

She arrived in California May 2, 1945. The Red Cross gave her $200 and a train ticket to Buffalo. She became a naturalized citizen two years later and would never leave America’s shores.

HIDDEN HURT

Joe Fragale Sr. was the 11th child of Italian immigrants.

His father worked on the railroad for 30 cents an hour, with 10 cents going to the foreman so he could keep his job. Joe joined the service in 1937 so he could eat.

In prison camp, that ended up being three bowls of rice a day. He was beaten until he could not hear on the first V-J Day because he had taken a few squash seeds to eat.

When he was freed, he was allowed to go to Manila to search for his family. He found his in-laws. He would later work years to get them both into the United States.

He was never the same after coming home, but he hid it well. After the war, he joined the Air Force, retiring in 1958 as a master sergeant. He cranked up a painting business, and young Joe, who had been working since his paper route at age 9, was a main employee.

Joe Jr. said he was an adult before he realized how much his father’s sacrifices for the nation had cost his family.

“My sister and I had a tough time growing up, but you didn’t know it at the time.”

His father attended a support group for former POWs, which they called “the cuckoo club.”

He often slept fully clothed on the sofa with a bottle of whiskey at his side. He did a lot of pacing at night. He was overly concerned for everyone’s security. The children never saw at home the big smiles he flashed in newspaper photos.

Before Joe Sr. died while hollering at the Buffalo Bills on TV, he had asked fellow POW John Zale to take care of Risa. For 18 years, Zale faithfully carried out that duty.

Joe Sr. did not often talk about the sadistic details of a war prison. “He always hid his hurt,” his son said. “He never wanted special favors.”

He never bought anything made in Japan, but one of his grandsons married a Japanese woman whose parents and grandparents were sent to an American internment camp.

Late in his life, Joe Sr. was honored with the Bronze Star. It was a cold day and by then he was stooped. But he marched straight-up erect to receive his medal.

Joe died in 1996 at age 76. He had done a lot of work to support POWs and their families, as well as Jewish people.

He and Risa would go into schools to talk about the war that defined their lives.

“They didn’t want anybody to forget that it happened,” Joe Jr. said.

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