On a Friday in November 1951, Petrina Montagna sent her son Sal to a back room of the family’s home on Railroad Street in Pittston.
In those days, 9-year-old boys weren’t allowed in the living room when mother had company, and that evening Tillie Alaimo was over for a visit. Sal turned on the radio and tuned in to “The Lone Ranger” show.
“I heard a knock on door,” Sal recalled, “then I heard mother screaming. I ran out to the living room. There was a telegram on the floor. I picked it up.”
As his mother and her friend wailed and sobbed, Sal read the telegram. His brother Army Cpl. Charles “Charlie” Montagna, 24, had been killed in action in Korea.
“I didn’t know what to do,” Sal said. “I had to find somebody.”
He ran to the Montedoro Society, but his father wasn’t there. He’d gone downtown with a couple buddies.
Back home, Sal called his aunts. His sisters, Leona and Pat, were at a Pittston High School football game at Bone Stadium, where they were paged over public address. A cousin, Joe Montagna, went to get them. Sal doesn’t remember exactly how and when his father was found and received the news, but soon he arrived as the house filled with people — aunts, uncles, cousins, neighbors and friends.
Meanwhile Sal’s other brother Carmen was aboard the USS Steinaker, a Navy destroyer escorting the carrier USS Franklin Roosevelt en route to the Mediterranean and Turkey.
Joseph was called to the captain’s office. Hearing the grim news, he asked if he could go home. Since they were in the middle Atlantic Ocean, the captain didn’t think that was possible. But as it happened a captain aboard the Roosevelt was flying back to Norfolk and agreed to take Joseph, who was winched from the Steinaker to the Roosevelt. From Norfolk, a waiting DC3 flew Joseph to Willow Grove. From there a staff car took him right to his front door on Railroad Street.
Two months later on Jan. 24, this telegram was delivered. “PLEASE BE ADVISED THE REMAINS OF CPL. CHARLES J MONTAGNA WITH ESCORT DEPARTS NEW YORK VIA LV TRAIN 9 AT 1055 AM MON 28 JAN ARRIVES PITTSTON AT 340 PM STANDARD TIME MAJOR H O YOUNG CHIEF AMERICAN GRAVES REGISTRATION.”
Sal described the scene at the Lehigh Valley Station where the extended Montagna family, Pittston veterans and scores of citizens waited. “I remember it like it was yesterday. The train stopped. They opened the baggage car.”
Unexpectedly, the coffin was sitting right at edge of car door. One of the aunts, who had come from Buffalo, became hysterical at the sight.
“My father asked the sergeant who escorted my brother home if we could open the coffin. He said we could, but it would be better if we didn’t,” Sal said.
It was only then the family learned how Joseph had been killed. He was one of three infantry men moving down a road. He was on a flank. The point man stepped on a land mine and lost a leg, while shrapnel flew into Charlie’s head, killing him on the spot.
At the train station, the coffin was loaded into a hearse which led a procession of cars to Graziano’s Funeral Home, then on South Main Street, where he was waked for three days with thousands of mourners filing through. Over a hundred cars were in the funeral procession to St. John the Evangelist Cemetery.
“I can remember the hearse going down Main Street,” Sal said, his voice breaking. “He’s been dead 60 years and I still get choked up.”
Charles worked at Nelson Furniture and played baseball for the Pittston Orioles in the Black Diamond League. Charles was drafted in 1950 with 16 other young men from the Pittston area. He was inducted on Oct. 30, 1950, and assigned to the 13th Engineer Combat Battalion, 7th Infantry Division. One year later, to the day, he was killed.
Petrina lived to age 91. After she died in 2001, her daughters, Sal’s sisters, Leona and Pat, found a box in the attic of the homestead on Railroad Street. In it was the telegram detailing when Charlie’s body would be coming home, letters from home which he had saved, a photocopied newspaper article and two rolls of film. The developed photos show Charlie and his army buddies in Korea and a young Korean orphan boy who hung around the camp. In one photo, the young boy sits on Charlie’s shoulders. The saddest find was a 1951 pocket calendar card on which Charlie had put a pencil slash through each passing day. The pencil marks end in October.
But where was his Purple Heart?
Then one day just a few months ago, Sal’s sister Pat found a small, hinged, cardboard mailing box hanging on a nail in the same attic, where it had been overlooked for over 60 years. In the box, in virtually untouched mint condition was Cpl. Charles Montagna’s Purple Heart.