Half A World Away and 70 Years Later, A Soldier's Sacrifice Remembered

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In 1943, 2nd Lt. Joseph P. Congelli, a native of Hornell, New York and a member of the “Mighty Eighth” 8th Air Force, was shot down while he returned from a mission over Osnabruck, Germany. Today, a Dutch citizen has adopted Congelli’s name at the Wall of the Missing in Margraten, Netherlands. In an effort to learn more about his adopted soldier, Peter Cootjans reached out to WSKG, and this is what we discovered.

THE WALL OF THE MISSING

A crowd gathered during a Memorial Day ceremony at Margraten

A crowd gathered during a Memorial Day ceremony at Margraten

This past Memorial Day, as the familiar sound of taps played at cemeteries across the United States, in the Netherlands, thousands of Dutch citizens gathered to decorate the graves and memorials of nearly 10,000 U.S. service members in the Netherlands American Cemetery.

Located near the small Dutch village of Margraten, this cemetery is home to a very successful grave and memorial adoption program.

“It’s very, very popular,” says Ton Hermes, a board member on the foundation that oversees the adoption program. “We have a lot of people on the waiting list.”

Currently, each of the 8,301 graves and 1,722 names on the Wall of the Missing in the cemetery has been adopted. Participants in the program agree to regularly visit and decorate a soldier’s grave or memorial, and they take special care on holidays, the soldier’s birthday and the date of the soldier’s death.

Among the memorials at Margraten is that of 2nd Lt. Joseph P. Congelli.

GONE, BUT NOT FORGOTTEN

Joseph Congelli's Yearbook Photograph

Joseph Congelli’s Yearbook Photograph

Lt. Congelli was an Upstate New York native from small town of Hornell. He came from a large, but tight-knit family.

“I remember he was quite good looking and a very hard worker…just a really great guy,” explains Dolores Kelley, one of Lt. Congelli’s younger sisters. “In fact, he was our mother’s favorite, and there were fourteen of us.”

In 1942, Joseph Congelli joined the 8th Air Force and became the co-pilot of a B-24 bomber in the 93rd Bombardment Group.  The Mighty Eighth, as the 8th Air Force became known, flew some of the most important bombing missions of World War II. The unit lost over 26,000 airmen during the war, and members of Lt. Congelli’s bomber group had a one in four chance of not surviving the conflict.

Bombing Mission over Osnabruck, Germany

Bombing Mission over Osnabruck, Germany

“The conditions were horrific, there was no pressurization, they were flying at 30,000 feet, and it could be 40 degrees below zero,” explains Henry Skipper, the President and CEO of the Mighty Eighth Museum in Savannah Georgia. “And of course with flaking coming through, ripping through the airplane, you had people having to deal with severely wounded crewman on-board the plane constantly.”

On December 22, 1943, Lt. Congelli was shot down while he returned from a mission over Osnabruck, Germany. He was twenty-two years old. Lt. Congelli’s body was never recovered. At the end of the war, his name was added to the Wall of the Missing in the Netherlands American Cemetery.

According to Lt. Congelli’s sister, the loss of her brother took an especially heavy toll on their mother.

“She really took it very hard when Joe went down and then they didn’t find him,” states Dolores Kelley. “She never ever forgot him…”


 Follow 2nd Lt. Congelli’s Story:


REMEMBERING YESTERDAY’S SACRIFICES TODAY

Many individuals in the Netherlands also refused to forget the sacrifices of soldiers like Lt. Congelli. Peter Cootjans, a Dutch citizen, adopted Lt. Congelli’s memorial in 2013.

Cootjans was born after World War II in a small village just 20 miles from the German border.  “Everyone, not myself, but my family, father, brothers, sisters…experienced World War II,” explains Cootjans. “When I was a little boy, the war was fresh in everyone’s memory.”

Peter and Yvonne Cootjans

Cootjans still remembers the moment he decided to adopt a grave at Margraten. It was during a visit to the cemetery with his twenty-one year old son.

“We walked around, and all the soldiers there that are buried were the same age as my son,” explains Cootjans. “You can not imagine what it meant to see your son walking around these graves knowing that all the soldiers lying there had the same age.”

The community of Margraten established the first-of-its-kind adoption program at the end of World War II. During the war, a unique set of circumstances forged strong bonds between the citizens of Margraten and American G.I.s.

“What happens there is that you have several months of an American build up in the region while troops are preparing for the actual campaign against the Nazi Germans,” explains Peter Schrijvers, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales in Sydney Australia and author of the book Margraten Boys. “It allows people in this region to get a much better picture of who Americans are… and it creates, often times, not just good knowledge of Americans, but deep friendships.”

Margraten Cemetery 1945

Margraten Cemetery at the end of the war.

As the war raged on, many of these same soldiers returned to the village of Margraten – as casualties. The small community searched for a way to commemorate the soldiers’ sacrifices, and they started the adoption program in May 1945.

The program continues to be one of the most successful in Europe. According to Peter Schrijvers, for Dutch citizens the tradition of adoption represents both a continued sense of gratitude for the liberation, as well as a reminder of the true costs of war and a way to promote peace.

“It’s also fueled increasing by a sense of human decency,” explains Schrijvers. “It’s a way of telling the families, whether they know or not, we refuse to forget them.”

CONNECTING TO HOME

Over the years, many adopters in the Netherlands have attempted to make contact with families in America. It’s an unofficial and often encouraged aspect of the program. Following his adoption of Lt. Congelli’s memorial, Peter Cootjans also wanted to connect with members of the Congelli family.

2nd Lt. Joseph Congelli

2nd Lt. Joseph Congelli

“I’m interested in what kind of boy Joseph was,” explains Cootjans. “Of course to know Joseph, you must know the family.”

Initially, Cootjans did not have success contacting Lt. Congelli’s family. However, days before Memorial Day 2014, Cootjans finally connected with Lt. Congelli’s great nephew, Nicholas Congelli. In a stroke of coincidence, Nicholas Congelli had also just begun researching his great-uncle’s story.

“It wasn’t talked about a ton, and I think that’s partially because nobody really knew much about what [Joe’s] life was like over in Europe and North Africa during the war,” says Nicholas Congelli. “I thought it was a little sad that we didn’t know more about it.”

Through a series of emails, Nicholas Congelli and Peter Cootjans shared what they discovered about Joseph Congelli. “I kind of feel like I’ve meet a new family member… a half world away,” explains Nicolas Congelli.

“I’m happy with it,” states Cootjans. “I’m glad they we can give each other something that makes us feel good.”

Flowers Left at Lt. Congelliss Memorial

Flowers left at the memorial of Lt. Congelli

Since Nicholas Congelli and Peter Cootjans connected, Joseph Congelli’s sister Dolores Kelley has written to Cootjans to express the family’s gratitude. “Well, it makes me feel great,” says Kelley. “I think it’s a wonderful thing he’s doing…and I think it’s a wonderful program.”

And for the first time, Peter Cootjans could lay a photograph of Lt. Congelli at his memorial during this year’s ceremony at Margraten. “I put flowers at the memorial for Joseph,” says Cootjans, “but after that we walked around the cemetery, and the thoughts go out to all the soldiers who are there.”

“It’s really pretty touching,” says Nicholas Congelli. “The idea that there’s this appreciation felt from people a generation removed from the war at this point, I think is really touching.”

409th Squadron in England

8th Air Force, 93rd. Bomb Group, 409th squadron. Hardwick, England. June 1943. Photo courtesy of Michael Graves.

A NEW DISCOVERY

Since Memorial Day, research conducted by Nicholas Congelli, Peter Cootjans and WSKG has uncovered documents that suggest the Germans may have actually recovered Lt. Congelli’s body in November 1944. The documents indicate that the body was likely misidentified and buried under the name “L.J.P Songelli.”  It seems that U.S. Forces later reinterred this body in a grave marked “Unknown.” The investigation continues with help from individuals in the Netherlands.

Updated 5/30/2016

After our original story was published, a group of volunteers in the Netherlands continued to look into the case of 2nd Lt. Joseph P. Congelli. Their research uncovered additional clues about the potential final resting place of 2nd Lt. Congelli. They submitted their findings to the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, last year. However, after investigations into its conduct, JPAC was merged into the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and ceased to exist on January 30, 2015. The group in the Netherlands is still waiting for a response to their report.

Peter Cootjans continues to care for 2nd Lt. Congelli’s memorial in the Netherlands American Cemetery at Margraten, and the two families continue to stay in touch.


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Find out more about how WSKG’s Shane Johnson uncovered this story. Listen to Crystal Sarakas’ interview with Johnson:

See more photographs from this story:

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