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Newsday Interviews Jennie Prianti Bongiorno
Comparing Tragedy to movie "Private Ryan"
BONGIORNO'S NURSERIES AND LANDSCAPING:
The Greatest Losses
'Saving Private Ryan' reveals just a tiny piece of the stories from families back home who lost more than one sonBy Donald P. Myers
August 13th, 1998
MOTHERS ALWAYS gather in the graveyard when the boys come home from war.
Caroline Prianti of East Northport sent five of her six sons to be soldiers in World War II, and then the telegrams started coming with the tears.
"The Secretary of War desires that I tender his deep sympathy to you in the loss of your son . . . " one telegram began.
"I trust that the knowledge of your son's heroic sacrifice may be a source of sustaining comfort," said a second.
"This double tragedy must be very difficult for you to bear," said a third.
The man from Jack's Taxi and Telegram Service brought five sad stories to the little Long Island farmhouse, and every time the mother saw him coming, she would fall on the floor and cry.
"We thought the telegrams would never stop coming," Caroline Prianti's daughter, Jenny Bongiorno, 70, says now. "First, my brother John was wounded. Then Frank and Peter were missing. Then they'd come back and say they were gone. Peter was dead. Frank was dead. More telegrams."
In "Saving Private Ryan," this summer's hit movie about the war more than half a century ago, a preacher and an Army officer drive to another farmhouse in Iowa with news for another mother. Before they can tell her that three of her four boys are dead, the mother falls on the front porch, just as Caroline Prianti did. In the movie, a rescue squad is sent into battle to save the surviving son, Pvt. James Ryan, so the mother won't lose her last boy.
In real life, they didn't send soldiers to save the mothers when their sons were killed in the war. They turned instead to the steno pool and Western Union.
"They send you a telegram or write you a letter, and the words come so cold," Jenny Bongiorno said the other day in her East Northport home, down the road from the old Prianti farmhouse. "The bad news always comes to the mothers, and that's when the crying starts. The mothers always get it."
Caroline Prianti's two sons were killed in france. The first was Peter Prianti Jr. and was just 21 years old. The second was her youngest soldier, Frank, killed in combat on November of 1944. He was a 19-year-old private.
She would grieve in the graveyard, Long Island National Cemetery in Melville, where her son would be buried as a soldier.
Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan" is fiction, but it's inspired by fact. Many American families lost more than one son in World War II, and the movie has forced survivors to relive the wrenching days of combat. But the film barely brushes on the horrors the war caused at home for families such as the Priantis and the Butehorns.
"The mothers are the ones left waiting and waiting and waiting," Jenny Bongiorno said. "My mother never let the rosary beads out of her hands. She was constantly praying for the boys."
Caroline Prianti lost a third boy two years after the war. Son Salvatore died of disease he had picked up in the South Pacific. Years later the mother would bury the remaining two sons who had fought in the war. When a sixth son was drafted into the Korean War, she grieved again. "We have given three sons for our country," she wrote President Harry S Truman. "Isn't that enough?" Son Dominic, a combat medic, would survive the war.
THE MOTHERS WOULD mourn in Melville for a long time after the war. Caroline Prianti would live to 89.
The graves of the sons of Long Island are lined up now in straight ranks, row after ramrod row. Pvt. Peter Prianti, killed at 21, and his brother Frank are buried there, side by side. They're all known in white stone only by the length of their lives.
A tombstone always shortchanges a life. Only a mother knows the full weight of the boy she had carried.
"We profoundly appreciate the greatness of your loss," said a long-ago letter to Caroline Prianti that came with Peter's Purple Heart. "In a very real sense, the loss suffered by any of us in this battle for our country is a loss shared by all of us."
The grieving goes on more than half a century later. "My mother used to have a mass for my brothers, every first Friday of the month," Jenny Bongiorno said, looking through another scrapbook of faded photographs. "She said to me, 'Jenny, when I pass on, carry on the masses.' I try to do everything she asked me to do, because she was such a good mother. I still carry on the masses for the boys."
Just 12 days before Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, ending the war in Europe, Caroline Prianti wrote a letter to Gen. George C. Marshall, U.S. Army chief of staff. Because two of her sons had been killed, the mother asked the general to send home her three other boys, Salvatore, Michael and John. The War Department denied her request, but in the final days of the war, the surviving Prianti brothers were kept out of combat.
Earlier in the war, the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa, had perished aboard the Navy cruiser USS Juneau, torpedoed by the Japanese. The War Department established a non-hazardous duty assignment policy for families in which two or more members had been killed. A sole surviving son or daughter could be sent home, but if there were more than one family member still in the service, they would be kept out of combat.
Jenny Bongiorno has never seen "Saving Private Ryan." She is afraid the movie might bring back bad memories. She believes what a lot of old veterans feel about reliving the bloody past: "It don't eat at you if you don't think about it."
BONGIORNO BELIEVES her mother might appreciate the movie, if she could just stomach the carnage. "She would say, 'I'm glad they're showing people what the war was really like.' She'd say, 'The kids today, they're out of hand -- let them know what it was like to go into the service and fight on the front lines. Let them know about sacrifice."'
In the days when they were all singing "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," Caroline McCumiskey knew something about sacrifice. She was an Irish girl from Brooklyn who married and moved out to Long Island to raise families. Caroline had married an Italian boy, Peter Prianti, and ended up in East Northport with nine children, six boys and three girls.
Caroline was a toughie. "She was strong," said her daughter Jenny. "Nine kids around the dinner table -- what else could she be? She was always baking bread and pies and pots of stuff so we'd all get full. We had a little farm. We had chickens and goats and cows and pigs. My mother worked in the garden -- tomatoes and peppers and squash. Life was nice."
And then the telegrams started coming.
Caroline Prianti grew frail by grieving, too. Even when her two sons came home in coffins and the wakes were held in her house, she refused to believe they were gone. "In her mind, those weren't her boys in those caskets," Jenny Bongiorno said. "She'd say, 'You watch, someday the boys are going to come back.' She'd watch newsreels and war movies, hoping to see Peter or Frank. She'd tell us to look for them, because she couldn't see good."
When the Army returned the belongings of the two Prianti boys, they told the mother that Frank owed 75 cents for laundry. "They take your boy, then they send you a bill," Jenny Bongiorno said. "My mother sent them the money."
Salvatore, Michael and John, still in combat, found out that Peter and Frank were dead when the Army returned letters they had written to their brothers. The letters came back stamped in black: "DECEASED."
Caroline Prianti had a prayer for her grandchildren: "Dear God, you took my sons, but please don't take my grandchildren. Don't ever let them go to war." Her daughter's eyes fill with tears now when she talks about the Irish girl from Brooklyn. "Her grandsons never had to go to war," Jenny Bongiorno said. "My mother's prayers were finally answered."
Prayers had been the East Northport mother's constant companion. She buried Peter and Frank when they came home from the war. She buried son Salvatore when he died of malaria and pneumonia in 1947. She buried her husband when he died 18 years after the war. She buried son Michael in 1979. She buried son John in 1981.
Only a mother knows the weight of all that.
Caroline Prianti lived for 38 years after World War II. Her oldest daughter, Antoinette, died in 1993. Her youngest son, Dominic, who survived the Korean War, died in 1997.
"They're all together again in heaven, I'm sure of that," said Jenny Bongiorno, the oldest survivor. She has two sons and seven grandchildren. Another surviving Prianti sister, Mary Corazzini, 61, lives in East Northport. Caroline Prianti is also survived by 21 grandchildren, 26 great-grandchildren and 2 great-great-grandchildren.
Mothers always gather in the graveyard when the sons die as soldiers, screaming "Mama!" In the movies, as in life, they die fighting for different causes, saluting different flags, singing different anthems.
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