Veterans Day: Richard Perzyk
Richard Perzyk - Part I
It was a cold February evening in this peaceful meadow in Zavatarello, Italy. Nine-year-old Luigino was walking up the hillside after a day of playing with friends. The boys had run down into the valley to play hide and seek among the Norwegian spruce and Aleppo pines that dotted the Northern Italy landscape. But young Luigino did not immediately finish his journey home that day. He witnessed what no young child should…the fiery crash of a C-47 on its way to the front to deliver supplies during World War II.
That crash killed seven soldiers; five Americans and two Brits…all with families, all with the burning passion to ensure freedom worldwide. Richard Perzyk was only 25. He had never married but left a sweetheart in his hometown of Detroit, Michigan. He had recently tried out to play baseball with the Detroit Tigers. He left behind his mother and father, six sisters and three brothers one of whom was reported missing in action the very day the family learned of Richard’s death.
Fast forward to August 20, 2015. An “indescribable emotion” is what Christiano and Pierlino experienced when, after digging for several hours, they saw the mesh of a bracelet. With great care and anxiety, they freed it from the land that had covered it for 72 years. They cleaned it with water from a bottle, and when the name appeared, the two researchers were overcome with emotion. The men confirmed that this bracelet, indeed, belonged to one of the men who lost his life in the Zavattarello plane crash. The bracelet was still closed with the hook, as when it was worn; Perhaps Richard had kept it in his pocket or maybe...
With great happiness, the four researchers set out to find Richard’s family in the US so this extraordinary momento could be delivered to the family. The hand of God brought Piero to Harvard Business School (HBS) in June 2017 for a leadership development class. Tim Perzyk graduated from HBS in 2005. Piero saw Tim’s name in the alumni directory and contacted him…yes, Tim is the great nephew of Richard Perzyk!
And so the planning began for the celebration for Richard Perzyk.
True Heroes – Part II
It was a warm June evening and I was on my way back from Sedona to our home in Glendale. It was just two weeks before our move to Prescott. My cell phone chirped with a text message from my son. “Mom, can you talk right now? Nothing bad.” He told me about the email about Uncle Richard from our cousin, Tim. I was rendered speechless (no easy task!)
For two years, the Italian Research Team, Grac of Piacenza, a local group who searched for downed WWII aircraft, tried to locate Richard Perzyk’s family. They had found his ID bracelet! Richard was from Detroit, a city that had changed a great deal over the past seven decades. Piero Ricci, an Italian businessman who worked for the bank of Milan, however, had been educated in the United States, and utilizing his vast network, was able to locate Tim Perzyk through the Harvard alumni network. The word spread through the family like wildfire, and after several conference calls with the Italians, it was decided that the ceremony would take place on November 4, 2017, the week before Italian Armistice Day.
Twelve family members traveled to Italy…a mini family reunion of sorts. Richard’s sister, Therese Perzyk, his Godchild and niece, Joann Conway, nephew and namesake, Richard Walker and his wife, Cathy, me and my son, Maj. Jeffrey Mueller (the US Air Force representative), Tim and Morgan Walker, great niece, Kendal Walker and her boyfriend Patrick, niece-in-law, Jane Perzyk, and nephew-in-law, Eric Gustafson.
We flew into Milan and met with Piero that first morning, and toasted cappuccinos to our newfound friendships. After a tour of the beautiful city of Milan, we drove south on a twisting, narrow road to Zavattarello in the Province of Pavia in the Italian region of Lombardy; population 1,135, and I believe most every one of those folks was at the celebration the next day.
We were greeted like royalty, and thanked time and again for the sacrifice that Richard had made to ensure their freedom. Many of the old stone buildings—including the historic castle—were built during medieval times including the Catholic Church, St. Paul where the celebration began. After the solemn high Mass, the congregation proceeded to the town square. A plaque had been erected with the names of the brave soldiers. Speeches were made, and Luigino, the young boy who witnessed the crash, presented the bracelet to Aunt Therese. A hosted lunch was served at the Hosteria del Castello, owned by Simone Tiglio, also the mayor of Zavatterello. The food and wine were outstanding!
In the afternoon, we proceeded to a grassy spot near the crash site. It is here that an entire monument had been erected, complete with the Italian, British and American flags. Each rock bore a brass plaque with the soldiers’ names engraved. During this part of the ceremony, a member of the Italian Air Force band played taps, and young local girls spread rose petals at each monument. We were humbled, touched to the core, grateful to the citizens of this beautiful town for the homage they paid to those young men who gave the ultimate sacrifice—their lives—to ensure their freedom.
That wasn’t the end of our incredible journey, though. Christiano wanted to take my aunt, Jeffrey and me to the exact spot where they found the bracelet. Dusk was settling over the Valley and we had to move quickly. We piled into one car and followed the police chief and Christiano. The location was private property and the police chief was more than accommodating, as was the farmer whose land we were about to enter. This was the sacred ground, and the reason for coming. We prayed and cried and reveled in this magnificent day.
On Sunday, we had the opportunity to explore this ancient town and speak with the locals. Very quickly we became a part of their town; a part of their family. Following brunch with Piero at a local restaurant, the family headed back to Milan and the following day, the family spent the day together on a scenic train ride through the Italian and Swiss Alps. We were enthralled with the beauty of the day, and the day before when we made 1,135 new friends.
I still struggle to put this amazing journey into words. To cherish the memories and thank the people in Zavatterello and the Grac team for closing a chapter in the Perzyk Family book of life. Interestingly, my mom, who was the closest in age to her brother, Richard—and a self-proclaimed “tomboy” who played catch, climbed to the top of the barn, played hide and seek—passed away on her brother’s birthday. Richard would have been 96, and mom was there to celebrate that birthday with him.