Francis Rifugiato joined the Army ROTC’s enlisted reserve corps while a music student at Duquesne University because he assumed the war would be over by the time he graduated. He was ordered to report to active duty in 1943. “I went from learning how to play clarinet in a Mozart concerto to learning how to kill someone with a bayonet.”
Francis served in an Army band until the need for combat infantrymen broke up the band and sent him into the 12th Armored Division. He boarded a troop ship in September 1944 and landed in France in November. Being a member of a headquarters company, Fran wasn’t involved in offensive operations, but he saw a lot of combat nonetheless. “I’m very lucky,” he says. Not so lucky was Fran’s best friend Charlie, who was a musician like Fran. Charlie’s death still haunts Fran, these many years later.
On May 9, 2012 we held our project’s second session of interviews with local veterans at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum. We set up our mobile recording studio in the stately Board Room—a formidable space of old world dark paneling, lofty ceilings, and leather-bound furniture. Along with the warm spring breeze, the busy sounds of Pittsburgh’s Oakland section occasionally wafted through the room’s magnificent stained glass windows, six stories above the University of Pittsburgh campus sprawling below us.
Like most veterans, Fran Rifugiato showed up early for his recording session. An original WW II canvass satchel held his mementos—some boxed medals, faded photographs, and a few tattered documents. As Fran carefully unpacked his bag to show us what he’d brought, he began to down-play the significance of his keepsakes and his story. “I really don’t know what to tell you fellas,” he said, as if apologizing. “My story isn’t very interesting. I wasn’t a hero. Many other guys did a lot more than I did. So many guys never came home. I just happened to survive.”
Fran would repeat this sentiment throughout our interview. Sometimes through tears, sometimes laughter. After so many years, the most heartfelt feelings can still lie just beneath the surface of memory. But that’s why Fran sat down with us to tell his story; despite his earlier concern about having nothing to say, he eventually realized the power of his own story.
Mid-way through our interview, past the obligatory catalog of names, dates, and places, Fran suddenly stopped and said, “I want to tell you what it was really like,” not referring to the facts, but to his thoughtful interpretation of the war.
When telling their stories, some veterans seem to focus more on the meaning of events–the impact of experience upon the heart, mind, body, and soul. Veterans turned educators, like Fran Rifugiato, seem to share their stories in this way–as object lessons in humanity.
In this audio short story, Fran talks about his fortunate luck to have made it home from the war–unlike Charlie, who had a feeling that he wouldn’t make it. He was killed in action during the winter of 1945.
Recorded on May 10, 2012 by the Veteran Voices of Pittsburgh Oral History Project at Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Music: Pete Emms/ Cloudy, Old Guit, Softly Softly (available at Soundcloud.com).
In My Own Words
Listen to the complete interview.
News About Charles F. Erke, Jr. . . .
During our interview, Fran Rifugiato mentions his friend Charles F. Erke, whose premonition about dying actually came true. He was shot and killed in combat while figting with the 66th AIB. The 12 Armored Division Association’s publication, The Hellcat News, gives mention to an interesting side-story regarding the Erke family:
Our C/66 buddy Charlie Fitts has sent some interesting information regarding a couple of 66th AIB soldiers.
Fitts wrote, “My family kept all letters they received and all their letters that were returned ‘MISSING’. From time to time the past 63 years I’ve looked through them. Recently I ran across the box and started reading some of them again.
“To lay the background, most local and regional newspapers carried a running casualty list every day of those men who were KIA, MIA or WIA from the vicinity. The Memphis Commercial Appeal did this and on about 11 February 1945, listed from Meridin, Miss., Charles M. Fitts, Jr., MIA, 16 January 1945 in France. On about 15 February 1945, mother received a letter from Mrs. Charles F. Erck, Tupelo, Miss. The letter was addressed Mrs. Charles M. Fitts, Sr., Meridian, Miss. – no street address. Mrs. Erck’s letter says among other things, ‘I see in the Commercial Appeal where your dear son is missing in action in France since Jan. 16. I have a telegram from the War Dept. giving the same message. My son was in France and has been missing since Jan 16 also. He is in the Armored Infantry – ‘A’ Co. 66th AIB, AP0262. His name is PFC Charles F. Erck, Jr. Since your son is reported missing on the same day, I wonder if they were in the same outfit.’
“They exchanged several letters – mother telling her I was in ‘C Co. 66th. On 12 March, mother received a letter from Mrs. Tyson McGuire, Tupelo, which reads, ‘I am writing you at the request of my sister, Mrs. Erck, to tell you about our Charles. On Wednesday, Feb., 28 she received a message from the War Dept., stating that Charles had been Killed in Action in France on Jan. 16. She has been so worried about not writing to you, but hesitated, since our message was so final and she felt that if you have not heard from your Charles this would be a great source of worry to you and your family.’
“I wonder if any of the ‘A’ Co. folks knew him.”
The Final Story
Francis J. Rifugiato, age 89, of Monroeville, formerly of Blackridge died September 28, 2014. Beloved husband for 63 years of Rosemary Campo Rifugiato; loving father of Francis P. (Sally) Rifugiato, David M. (Clara) Rifugiato, Gina (Scott) Siegwart, and Lynne (Gregory) Young; dear grandfather of Luke and Gina Lynne Rifugiato, Elena, Ian and Braeden Young, Daniel, Sean, Robert, Katarina and Hannah Siegwart; and great-grandfather of Lucian Siegwart; brother of Cornelius (Kathy) Rifugiato. Preceded in death by two brothers and three sisters.
Fran proudly served with the 12th Armored Division in England, France, and Germany, during World War II. He served as a teacher and vice principal at Schenley High School, the principal at Perry High School, and, for 21 years, the Director of Curriculum for the Pittsburgh Public Schools. He enjoyed a part time career performing as a musician, traveling the country with the Hal McIntyre Orchestra and performing with notable acts, such as Sammie Davis, Jr. and Yul Brynner. He was a longtime member of the Retired Teachers Association and the Italian Sons & Daughters of America. His greatest joys came from his ten grandchildren; he was exceptionally generous with them, always proud and supportive. His love and guidance will be sorely missed.
Francis J. Rifugiato: Veteran, educator over decades with lifelong passion for learning, by Eleanor Chute / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette