ALBANY, N.Y. -- Corrado Piccoli's sisters believed one of their other siblings had his Purple Heart. So it was a shock when a Vermont Army National Guard officer showed up at Mary Piccoli's door one day, telling her he had the medal, awarded posthumously after her brother was killed in action during World War II.
"You better sit down. I have a story to tell you," Adeline Rockko was told when her sister called earlier this year with word of Capt. Zachariah Fike's discovery. "We had no idea it was even missing."
On Sunday, Fike will give the Piccoli family Corrado's Purple Heart and other medals he earned while fighting with the Army's 45th Infantry Division in Italy and France, where the 20-year-old private was killed in October 1944. The gathering in Watertown will cap Fike's yearlong mission to find the family, an effort interrupted by his deployment to Afghanistan, where he was wounded in a rocket attack.
Fike's mother, knowing her son liked to collect World War II memorabilia, bought the Purple Heart at an antique store in Watertown, 140 miles northwest of Albany. She gave it to him as a Christmas gift in 2009, when he was on leave waiting to go to Afghanistan.
Fike said when he saw a name engraved on the back – Corrado A.G. Piccoli – he had a hunch the soldier likely died in battle. The military doesn't engrave the recipient's name on every medal it issues, but someone, possibly in Piccoli's family, made sure the soldier's Purple Heart bore his name.
As the son of two Army soldiers – his mother served four years, his father retired after 31 years and was awarded a Purple Heart in Vietnam – Fike felt he had to return the medal to Piccoli's family.
Over four days after that Christmas, Fike scoured local records for any mention of Corrado Piccoli. A janitor at Watertown High School let him in on a Saturday, and Fike found the yearbook from Piccoli's senior year, 1942. He checked military and ancestry websites and the local library, where the most recent war records from the 1940s said Piccoli had been buried in France.
His search was going so smoothly, it seemed like Piccoli was guiding the way, Fike said.
"I really felt like he was talking to me throughout the process," Fike told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
Then Fike, who went to high school near Watertown and lives in Burlington, Vt., had to put his personal mission on hold. His leave was up and the 30-year-old, full-time National Guard captain headed back to Vermont to prepare his unit, the 1-172nd Cavalry of the 86th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, for Afghanistan. It arrived in February 2010, and nine months later, on Sept. 11, Fike was hit by shrapnel on his back and legs when a rocket fired by insurgents landed on the building where he was sleeping.
He was awarded a Purple Heart.
After he arrived back home in Burlington last December, Fike headed to Watertown to resume his quest. There were phone listings for a Mary Piccoli in Watertown and a Natalino Piccoli in Baldwinsville, outside Syracuse, but both numbers were disconnected. In early January, Fike stopped by Watertown's Italian-American Civic Association, enduring some friendly razzing from the club's World War II veterans – they were enlisted men, he's an officer – and was told that Piccoli's father was a founding member of the organization and his brother Natalino served as the group's vice president for a year.
But he got few hard leads on Piccoli's siblings. So he visited the Watertown cemetery where Piccoli's parents are buried. The cemetery's records listed a grave in the Piccoli family plot for Pvt. Corrado A.G. Piccoli, whose remains were brought back in 1948 at the family's request. A caretaker guided Fike to the gravesite.
"It was like, oh my God, I found him," he said. "It was great."
The burial records also listed the Piccolis' parish, St. Anthony's Church, where an 83-year-old nun told Fike she went to high school with Corrado's sister, Mary, and knew how to reach her. The nun called Mary, who was house-sitting for her daughter, and within minutes Fike was at her door, explaining how he came to have her brother's Purple Heart.
Mary and her two sisters thought Natalino had the medal all these years. He was still living in Watertown after their parents passed away and the medal was left to him, said Rockko, 84, of New Lisbon, N.J.
"My parents hung on to that Purple Heart for dear life because that was all they had left of my brother," she said.
She said she believes Natalino somehow lost the medal during one of several relocations after he moved out of Watertown. After getting the news that Fike had the medal, Rockko and her siblings decided he should hold on to it, plus several other belated military decorations Piccoli was due, until a warm-weather date could be selected when the older family members could travel to Watertown for a special ceremony.
While planning the event with the Annandale, Va.-based Military Order of the Purple Heart, Fike randomly suggested Aug. 7. Good choice, the organization told him, because Aug. 7 is National Purple Heart Day.
"That was like the capstone of a `wow, this-was-meant-to-be-type of thing,'" Fike said.
The Purple Heart, plus a Combat Infantryman's Badge, Bronze Star and other medals to which Piccoli was entitled, have been mounted in a glass display case that will be presented to the family Sunday afternoon at Watertown's Italian-American club. The family will give the medals to the 72-year-old club, where they'll be on permanent display.
Adeline, Natalino, Mary and another sister, Margherita Larmon of Willmar, Minn., will be joined by more than 40 other relatives at the ceremony. On Saturday night, they're holding a family reunion next door at the Veterans of Foreign Wars hall.
Fike, of course, is invited.
"Zach is part of the family," Rockko said. "We've really adopted him – with his mother's permission."