Three local veterans honored
North Fort Myers resident Mildred “Millie” Millette waited almost 60 years for her brother, Ralph Fringeli, to be awarded the Purple Heart.
Finally, Monday morning, U.S. Rep. Connie Mack, R-Fort Myers, presented the coveted military decoration to Fringeli posthumously.
“I never thought it would happen,” said Millette, sitting at a table in the Lee County Administration Building. “I feel so excited about it.”
Local politicians and reporters bombarded her with congratulations as she delicately used a balled up tissue from her pocket to polish the Purple Heart — a decoration bestowed to U.S. service persons who are wounded or killed in battle.
On June 25, 1950, the North Korean Army invaded South Korea and the United States intervened in an attempt to prevent communism from spreading into the democratic south.
At the age of 22, Fringeli joined the Army and was deployed to assist in the effort along with thousands of other American soldiers. One year later his company was captured by the Chinese, who had entered the war on the side of the communists in October 1950.
The surviving soldiers were forced to march to a prison camp somewhere in North Korea. Fringeli did not survive the trip.
“They marched for a few days to a prison camp,” explained Richard Millette, Millie’s husband, who accompanied her to the award ceremony. “On the way there, he had pneumonia and dysentery. They buried him under a trestle.”
The location of Fringeli’s final resting place was never identified, instead the family only knew that his remains lied at the bottom of a Korean bridge with nothing but his Army issued clothes and dog tags.
Overall from 1950-53, there were 33,741 deaths in battle in Korea and 103,284 were wounded, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Millie worked diligently for more than 20 years to see that her brother was decorated with the Purple Heart, but each time she petitioned the U.S. Department on Veteran’s Affairs, there would be some unseen bureaucratic roadblock.
And the North Korean government was not forthcoming.
“The North Koreans weren’t cooperative with finding the body,” said Richard.
Fringeli’s family held a funeral for him with an empty casket. The only details they had about his final days were provided by other soldiers who served with him.
Millie’s nephew, a colonel in the Army, also assisted her and Richard in obtaining more information about what happened to Fringeli.
Millie’s family — Frank Conorozzo, Kathy Croteao and her son, Nathan — stood proudly as Mack handed her the Purple Heart.
“This gives her a lot of closure,” said Conorozzo. “She was close to her brother.”
Fringeli also received five other medals for his service in the Army. Croteao was disappointed that other members of the family were not able to see his decoration.
“Unfortunately, her mother didn’t get to see it, or any of her brothers or sisters,” she said.
Two other veterans were also recognized Monday.
Hurbert Nerenberg, an Army veteran and Fort Myers resident, earned the Bronze Star for his service in the Second World War. Also, Lucien Pelletier, a Fort Myers resident, was presented with his high school diploma after he left school early to join the Army.
Pelletier served in Europe and Asia and was one of the early members of the OSS, the parent organization of the CIA. Much of his service involved parachuting out of airplanes.
“I had a lot of jumps and I’m still here,” joked Pelletier Monday morning.
Mack said it was an honor to recognize the outstanding veterans. He told the audience to take some time to thank local veterans.
“There are so many people that have fought for and defended our freedom,” said Mack. “My heart is filled with joy and I think it is a beautiful morning.”
The reason why it took half a century for Fringeli to receive the Purple Heart is a mystery, explained John Ebling, director of Lee County Veteran Services. But, there is a specific process the Army needs to follow before decorations are presented.
“It was hard to say what happened at that time in the mid-50s,” said Ebling. “But the system is a lot better today.”
Millie approached Ebling in December possessing a myriad of information documenting what happened to her brother.
She presented the veteran’s representative with testimonials from other soldiers who witnessed his death, a map of where he was taken captive and other pieces of information that Ebling described as “compelling.”
“The story I remember was that he was assigned to an infantry regiment, they were overrun and surrounded, and the better part of the unit was taken as POWs,” said Ebling. “He never came home.”