World War II veteran Onofrio “No-No” Zicari of Las Vegas returned to the beaches of Normandy in search of closure, never imagining that he would end up delivering that precious commodity to the family of one of his fallen comrades.
The 96-year-old Zicari traveled to France earlier this month for the first time since being wounded during the Allied D-Day landing on June 6, 1944, to mark the 75th anniversary of the landing.
But before he left, he packed a few mementos, including a photo showing him standing in front of the grave of a man he had come to know well.
The grave, in the Normandy American Cemetery, was that of Army Pvt. Donald Simmons — a 21-year-old New Yorker he had gotten acquainted with in boot camp. The two young men became best friends and looked out for each other as they trained for the invasion that became a turning point in the war.
“He was a soldier, period. He wanted to do whatever he had to do,” Zicari said. “It was unfortunate he got killed. It was fortunate … (though) that he didn’t face the horrors of the war.”
Some 10,000 Allied soldiers perished that fateful day, including Simmons, who was killed just as he was about to exit the landing craft and storm ashore at Omaha Beach.
“He was the last one off the boat, and two sailors were also killed at the time, just knocked them flat off,” Zicari told the Review-Journal on Friday, adding that he wasn’t sure if it was gunfire or bomb shrapnel that killed the men.
Zicari suffered minor wounds before spending the rest of the day pinned down on the beach and “trying to stay alive.”
Memories ‘stirred up’
The return to the beach was difficult for Zicari.
“I tried to forget memories, but being there stirred them up pretty good,” he said on Friday.
But ultimately, he said, the journey helped him put some demons to rest.
“I had closure. I saw what I wanted to see,” he said.
Diane Hight, founder of Forever Young Senior Veterans, the Tennessee-based nonprofit that took Zicari on the trip, said she saw the transformation during the eight-day visit.
“When No-No first saw Omaha Beach, all the graves, it was a struggle for him,” she said. “As the week went on, we could see joy and peace coming into his life.”
But the biggest moment of healing was yet to come.
The veterans group’s return to Normandy for the commemoration drew the attention of ABC News’ “World News Tonight,” which followed along as they reminisced about the battle and revisited spots still vivid in their memories.
One of the moments they broadcast was a visit Zicari made to the Normandy American Cemetery. The footage showed him walking past long rows of gravestones before finding Simmons’ final resting place.
Among those watching in upstate New York was Bernard Simmons, 82, Donald Simmons’ younger brother.
Bernard Simmons said he was watching coverage of D-Day, as he always does, when he saw Zicari kneel. His somber mood turned to shock when he saw his brother’s name engraved on the cross-shaped gravestone.
‘I couldn’t believe it’
“At first, I couldn’t believe it,” he said Friday. “It was quite a surprise, because we often wondered how it all happened and what became of him.”
Bernard Simmons, the youngest living sibling of nine brothers and sisters, was just 6 when his brother died at 21. He remembers looking up to his father, a World War I veteran, and two older brothers who served. Bernard Simmons, too, entered the Army in 1957, because he said he felt it was his duty.
He remembers the last time he saw Donald during a three-day leave before he shipped overseas.
“I was a little, runny-nose kid at the time,” he said. “But I’d sit on his car bumper and talk to him.”
His last memory of Donald was him pouring coolant into his Plymouth coupe.
After watching Zicari on TV, Bernard Simmons began spreading the word among other surviving family members.
“When I saw this on TV, I called my son, Doug, up and he called the news people and it snowballed from there,” he said.
A local TV station and a VFW post in the small village of Canastota, New York, just about 70 miles from the town of Geneva, where Zicari grew up, set up a video chat between the Simmons family and Zicari, who was still in France.
Hight, the organizer of the trip, said Zicari was overwhelmed when he learned that Simmons’ family, who were informed at the time of Donald Simmons’ death but were provided no details, had seen his television appearance and finally learned what had happened.
“When I told No-No that the nephew had contacted me and the family saw it, he was in tears,” she said. “He was deeply moved.”
Face-to-face from afar
During the internet reunion, which ABC filmed and also broadcast, the Simmons family shared a portrait of Donald, and Zicari showed them a photo of the grave marker that he’d taken on his cellphone. He also shared a few of his memories of their lost brother.
“We were together all the way through it,” Zicari said. “There were 120 of us so we all trained together. We looked out for one another.”
He also learned that he shared more than a geographic proximity to his fallen comrade.
Simmons’ family recalled that before being drafted, Donald had worked at a local milk plant and would bring a 6-quart can of milk home every day. Bernard Simmons said he still has that can.
Zicari told them that he had worked as a milk man when he got out of the service.
Tears were shed during the video chat, but there also were some lighter moments.
At one point, Doris Cole, one of Donald’s sisters, told Zicari that “I’m just a couple years younger than you are.”
“Hey, you’re available then, huh?” Zicari responded.
“We love you already,” added another sister, Marie Bates.
Bates, 89, told the Review-Journal that connecting with Zicari was a “divine appointment.”
She was just 15 when the family received a telegraph cable saying that her brother had died.
“It was a very sad, sad moment. I can remember it just as vivid as the day it happened,” she said.
While Zicari was able to share some details of Donald’s final months of life and the circumstances of his death, he wants to tell them much more. He and the Simmonses have made arrangements for him to travel to New York in September for a visit.
“That’s the important thing in life, is to go back to New York and visit with the Simmons family, tell them whatever they want to know,” Zicari told the Review-Journal this week. “That will really give us closure.”