LINCOLN — Nearly 70 years after Pvt. Joe Alberico was struck down by a Nazi bullet, a medal lost in the fog of World War II finally arrived.
In a solemn ceremony Monday at the State Capitol that drew tears from his now 89-year-old widow, a Purple Heart medal and a handful of other military commendations were delivered to his family.
“I can't believe this. That's all I can say,” said his widow, Helen Minarik of the Elkhorn area.
Minarik, then Helen Caniglia, married Alberico two weeks before he shipped out to Europe with the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment in the summer of 1944.
She never saw him again. She received only one letter from him, a note that read: “I love you. I'll see you later.”
Alberico, who met his wife at a 10-cent dance in South Omaha, was killed on Oct. 4, 1944. He was shot as the 501st was securing a series of bridges in the Netherlands during “Operation Market Garden,” a failed Allied effort to end the war by Christmas.
The young private was one of 661 casualties from his regiment during that campaign, which was depicted in the movie “A Bridge Too Far.”
“Everybody who loves their country fights for their country,” his widow said.
It took a month for word of her husband's death to reach Omaha, where his young bride was staying with family in the Little Italy neighborhood.
She never bothered to claim his medal. A daughter said it was probably due to a mixture of confusion and wanting to move on.
A friend of the family, State Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha, said there might have been another reason: “That generation didn't ask for anything. That's just the way they were.”
By 1948, Helen remarried. Her second husband, Bernard Minarik, was a dentist in downtown Omaha. She kept her first marriage a secret from their four children.
It wasn't until the 1970s or 1980s that the children learned by accident that their mother had been married earlier. And, they were told, her first husband had been killed in World War II.
One day, one of the children, Bernie Minarik, a retired DEA agent who lives in Anchorage, Alaska, was watching a war movie. That led him to wonder why they had never seen Joe's Purple Heart. The pursuit of the medal was on, an effort that family members said would have been wholeheartedly supported by Helen's second husband, who died in 1993.
“Our father taught us to respect those who served in the military,” said Carol Lukowski of Valley. “When we found out she'd never received his Purple Heart, we knew that wasn't right.”
“He taught us to do the right thing, and we did,” Lukowski said.
It took three years of working through military red tape before Monday's ceremony, which included Krist, as well as representatives of U.S. Sen. Mike Johanns' office.
Roger Lempke, a former adjutant general of the Nebraska National Guard who now works for Johanns, said it's not unheard of for soldiers wounded or killed in battle to not receive their Purple Hearts. Back in World War II, communications were slow, via mail or telegraph, and during intense battles, regiments like Pvt. Alberico's could have been shut off from others for days at a time.
“You've got to put yourself back in 1944,” Lempke said.
Helen Minarik, dressed in red, white and blue and steadying herself with a metal cane, dabbed tears from her eyes as Lempke read of her first husband's military service. Then, she was presented with the Purple Heart.
About 60 members of the Minarik, Alberico and Caniglia families attended Monday's ceremony, including Joe Alberico of Omaha, a 55-year-old construction worker named for his late uncle.
“It was a kind of an overlooked thing,” Alberico said of the long-forgotten medal. “This is the actual closure to it.”