The children of St. Brigid Catholic Academy were so enthralled by Rocco Moretto’s tales of World War II that when he was finally done answering their questions, they lined up to get his autograph.
Almost from the beginning of his question-and-answer session with them, which ran more than an hour and a half, the half-circle of more than 40 second- and fourth-graders had been inching closer to the war hero seated on a chair in their gym. And when one of them got the idea to get his autograph on a piece of notebook paper, they quickly lined up to make sure they all did. That’s how impressed they were.
And Moretto was accommodating, as he had been during the entire special lesson in history he gave them on March 7.
Now 89, Moretto was 19 when he entered the war, at one of its most crucial junctures. He landed with the U.S. First Infantry Division on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944, to begin the liberation of Europe from the west. Unlike an estimated 2,000 other Americans who landed on the beach, he made it off of it.
“I’ve never forgotten D-Day,” Moretto told the students, all about eight decades his junior. “It’s been on my mind all these years, going on 70 years. I lost many, many friends that day. They were great men who did their duty, and I’ve never forgotten them.”
Moretto’s visit to St. Brigid’s, located right at the border between Ridgewood and Bushwick, was arranged by the United War Veterans Council, a group he is active with. It was the brainchild of Kim Silva, whose daughter, Isobella Purcell, is a second-grader at the school. Silva is a teacher, and Isobella, who goes by Izzy, was born on Dec. 7, Pearl Harbor Day, so her mother had always emphasized the importance of that day. When a friend in the service said there were still some World War II veterans around, Silva contacted the council.
“The United Veterans Council was extremely accessible,” Silva said. “It was so simple. Thank God he could come here today.”
The children prepared for Moretto’s visit with three days of brief lessons on the war.
Moretto, who became a staff sergeant with the Big Red One, as the First Infantry was called, gave a brief introduction to the students and then the questions began. Many were about how an individual soldier handles warfare.
“Were you scared of the shooting?”
“Yes, we were scared all the time. We had good training and worked past being afraid.”
“Where did you go to the bathroom?”
“Wherever we could dig a hole.”
“How many people did you kill?”
“I don’t know.”
“Were you relieved at the end of the war?”
“Yes, but we were so worn out, there were no high-fives, like men in sports like football do. We were so worn out we were happy, but we didn’t show it. We wanted to be strong.”
If you didn’t know why they call them the Greatest Generation, a few minutes with Moretto will teach you. That’s why the Veterans of Foreign Wars post where he lives in Astoria is named after him, something extremely rare for a living ex-soldier.
The children’s other questions covered everything from what type of weapons Moretto carried to whether the U.S. soldiers knew what the Nazis were doing to the Jewish people. They did, he said.
Afterward, the veteran told the kids, “I was very, very glad to be here today. You’re an amazing group of children and you asked amazing questions, and I’m very proud of you.”
The feeling was mutual. Some of the children were too shy to be interviewed, but one of the most enthusiastic, fourth-grader Nicole Parayano, could barely contain her excitement about the lesson.
“He was awesome,” Nicole said. “I am shocked that he’s still here, and that he survived the war. He’s an amazing man. He survives, he’s strong, he earned a lot of badges.”
Jessica Bryan of the UVC, who helped set up the event, said, “Seeing the amazing questions the children had was just remarkable. He had a wonderful time, and I think he’ll remember it always.”
Marleen Levi of the UVC coordinated the questions, while St. Brigid teachers Agnes Roszczeda, Teresa Ferraro and Sabrina Cirabis watched their students learn from one man who made history.