Bittersweet memories came flooding back to Nat Popolo’s mind as he scrutinized an old catcher’s mitt that he hadn’t held in decades. Tied up with a shoelace and signed by former Brooklyn Dodgers catcher Mickey Owen, the worn glove was undeniably his. It had been 66 years since he slipped it over his hand. Overwhelmed, he began to cry.A World War II veteran, Mr. Popolo returned to the United States in 1947 after serving in the 78th Division of the U.S. Army, and lost his glove at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Officials determined that it was the property of the federal government and confiscated it on the spot. According to his wife, Anne, he never forgot that they took away his glove.
The 86-year-old was reunited with his mitt, and memories of his youth, on June 1 as part of an Honor Flight—a trip for veterans to see the World War II memorial in Washington funded by the nonprofit Long Island Honor Flight organization.
On the way back to the airport after spending the day in Washington, more than 30 veterans were given cards of thanks from students and community members. In addition to his letters, Mr. Popolo received a brown paper package addressed to his childhood home in Brooklyn. His daughter, Carol Popolo of Indianapolis, bought the glove on eBay—incidentally from a California man whose mother was imprisoned at the Auschwitz concentration camp—and arranged to give it to him during mail call on the Honor Flight trip instead of waiting until Father’s Day.
Mr. Popolo, who lives in Ridge, is convinced it is “the glove” that he used when he was on duty as a military policeman in Berlin after the war ended. His job after the war was to keep law and order, take displaced people from concentration camps to their homes and work with prisoners of war to respectfully rebury Holocaust victims. A lover of baseball, he had the POWs build a diamond in place of toppled Nazi buildings. There, he played catcher with the POWs and his fellow MPs.
“It’s so distinct—seeing the shoelace in the back of it brought back memories about why I did it,” he said about the glove, explaining that its leather lace broke apart and he had to replace it with his boot’s shoelace. “It brought back memories of the war. The people we freed were so appreciative.”
According to Amagansett resident and president and founder of the Long Island Honor Flight, Chris Cosich, the story of the glove is serendipitous.
“There have been a lot of stories, but this one is really touching,” he said. “This is the real deal. You can’t make this stuff up.”
According to Mr. Cosich, Honor Flight, which is a national organization, aims to give veterans the chance to reflect and be recognized for their valor, but acts as a “living history lesson” for those who participate and go on the trip with the veterans.
East Hampton High School senior Melanie Mackin was aboard the June 1 flight as a “guardian,” or caretaker, to Reginald Ballantyne of Westbury, who served in the U.S. Army infantry as a lieutenant in Italy.
According to East Hampton High School Principal Adam Fine, Melanie was selected to go on the trip because she is the Student Association president and is actively involved in school activities.
The 17-year-old said she was fortunate to spend time with and learn from a man of the Greatest Generation.
“We were so comfortable with each other,” she said about Mr. Ballantyne, explaining that he took her under his wing and shared facts and memories with her throughout the day. She said her eyes were opened to the sacrifices the veterans made and felt moved when she realized what these men and women lived through.
“It was so realistic for them and it brought back memories,” she said. “It’s so moving, you never think about it sitting in a high school classroom, but these people actually lived through it.”
Mr. Ballantyne, who is turning 90 on Friday, narrowly escaped death during the war—during heavy fire, he was shot in the back of the head and in his “rump,” as he called it. He received two Purple Hearts for his injuries and two Bronze Stars for going on a special mission.
“If anything, I learned to appreciate every moment of life,” Melonie said. “To him, he’s just another person and he was just happy to serve his country.”
At the memorial, the veterans received medals as a “thank you” for their service. Mr. Ballantyne asked the Marine handing them out for an extra one to give to Melanie, who had become a fast friend. She said she takes it everywhere she goes. The two exchanged addresses and plan to write one another.
Hearing news of Melanie’s involvement, Mr. Cosich said that it is imperative that the youth get involved with Honor Flight.
“Most of these students were born in the 21st century—we wouldn’t have a 21st century if it were not for World War II veterans,” he said. “These kids see movies like ‘Band of Brothers’ and ‘Saving Private Ryan,’ and by participating with Honor Flight they get to stand next to the guys. These men and women were asked to step into uniform, go to quick training and face two powers poised to take over the world.”
For more information, www.honorflightlongisland.org or call 702-2423.