Soldier’s World War II Helmet Will Come Home to Sag Harbor
By Christine Sampson
Far-flung objects sometimes have an improbable way of finding their way back home to Sag Harbor.
In January, the military officer’s sword belonging to Sag Harbor veteran Daniel F. Mulvihill, whose career in the United States Navy spanned the Spanish-American War to World War II, was returned to his heirs after it was stolen from his home about 50 years ago. Although its whereabouts for most of that time remain a mystery, the sword — with a sharkskin handle and a gold-plated hilt — turned up in a local online police property auction in December.
Also notable was the return of not one but two misplaced rings to the possession of a Sag Harbor newlywed who had, on separate occasions, lost a high school graduation ring and his platinum wedding band. They were both returned to him — his high school ring, lost in 1988 after a jolly night out in Binghamton and returned in 2009, and his wedding band, lost after a swim in Cutchogue in 2007 and returned by a professional beachcomber with a metal detector in 2011.
And soon, Cathy Santacroce-Worwetz will get the chance to touch and hold the helmet that her father, the late Frank Santacroce, wore during his World War II tours in Italy, northern Africa, France and Germany with the U.S. Army’s 36th Infantry Division.
“I never could have imagined it, 73 years after the war ended,” said Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz, who was born and raised in Sag Harbor, just like her father. “That helmet protected him throughout the war. We are all just overwhelmed with joy over this.”
The helmet will come home to her from Al Compoly Jr., a U.S. Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, and who lives in Mount Pocono, Pennsylvania. Mr. Compoly was helping out at a flea market for the Church of St. Luke in Stroudsberg about two years ago when he found the helmet among piles of donations people brought in for the church to sell.
“Usually when I see something military, I hold onto it,” he said by phone on Monday. “I sort of hung it up in the shop with some other memorabilia we found over the years and didn’t pay too much attention to it.”
Through a volunteer project, in which Mr. Compoly is helping a friend put together a big “thank you” dinner for local veterans, he decided to pull the helmet down off the shop wall and take another look at it to see if it could be useful in some way.
“It’s a worn helmet, not shiny and new,” he said. “The liner is in relatively good shape, and there’s no dents or anything like that. It’s still a very serviceable helmet.”
Upon closer inspection, he said, he noticed the helmet’s liner looked a little bit different from others he had seen before. He removed the liner and saw a label, which read “Frank Santacroce Hat.”
Mr. Compoly, a member of American Legion Post #903, immediately jumped onto the internet and searched for Frank Santacroce, ultimately finding an obituary that led him to Sag Harbor’s American Legion Chelberg-Battle Post #388, where Mr. Santacroce was its commander from 1949 to 1950. Mr. Compoly’s message to Sag Harbor’s American Legion reached JoAnn Lyles, an auxiliary member who runs the Legion’s Facebook page and is in charge of veterans’ rehabilitation locally. Ms. Lyles, in turn, surprised Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz with the news on June 7 at the American Legion’s installation dinner for new auxiliary’s officers.
“Then, of course, I was in tears, as were a lot of people,” Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz said.
On Monday, Ms. Lyles thanked Mr. Compoly for his research and outreach, and said she is excited for Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz and her family.
“It’s super nice that he took the time,” Ms. Lyles said. “[Mr. Santacroce] was an integral part in us having that building. He was the one who said, ‘Let’s buy this land.’”
After doing the research, knowing a little bit more about Mr. Santacroce helped explain why the liner had sort of a lip on the front. Mr. Santacroce was an engineer in the Army, and the liner likely made the helmet also function as sort of a hard hat, Mr. Compoly explained.
He said it feels gratifying to be able to reunite a family with such a meaningful artifact.
“If it weren’t discovered, it would have been sold to a kid wanting to play Army or it would have been trashed,” he said.
Its exact journey to the Church of St. Luke, though, remains unknown. Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz thinks it might have been in the possession of her father’s first wife, who died shortly after the war, and whose family lived in upstate New York just over the Pennsylvania border.
“People sort of bring stuff in, dump it and leave,” Mr. Compoly said. “We have no idea who brought this in.”
As for Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz, after she and her family have their time to appreciate the helmet, she plans to donate it to the Sag Harbor American Legion, which is in the process of expand its building to be able to house a growing collection of military memorabilia donated by local veterans and their families. She has already donated her father’s dress uniform along with the dress uniform worn by her mother, Anne Tedesco Santacroce, who was an Army nurse during World War II.
Mr. Santacroce died in 2009 at the age of 93. June 28 would have been his 101st birthday. According to a timeline of his life penciled out on a yellow legal pad in his own handwriting, he enlisted in the Army on December 11, 1942, a little more than a year past the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Mr. Santacroce served in the war about 900 days in all.
“The family always said he couldn’t wait to get back to the safety of his harbor,” Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz said.
In those days, troops held onto their equipment as long as they possibly could — with a war on two fronts, materials were in short supply.
“Probably the first thing you held onto was your weapon. That was the most important thing,” Mr. Compoly said. “The second thing you needed was your helmet for protection, especially during World War II.”
For Mothers Day in 1944, Mr. Santacroce sent a telegram home: “Please don’t worry. My love and greetings on Mothers Day. My thoughts are with you.”
On a breezy, balmy Monday, displaying a photo of her father wearing what was in all likelihood the very helmet that will soon be returning to her possession, Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz said, “Of course they worried. Not all of them made it home.”
She said the last several days had been quite emotional after learning about the helmet.
“It’s just a great, feel-good story,” Ms. Santacroce-Worwetz said. “We need more good news. It’s not just my good story — it’s Sag Harbor’s good story.”