At 90 years old, Alfred Caponigro has received many gifts. But this year, his family gave him one of the greatest presents they could— his long-lost service medals.
The World War II veteran is battling cancer, but no one could tell that from the joy on his face when he was surrounded in his home by his family members Tuesday night— and his long-delayed gift.
“I think there’s 27 grandchildren and 25 great-great children, or it’s the other way,” joked his daughter Elena Mazza, about their very large Italian-American family.
The medals arrived by special delivery from Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who came bearing the eight medals and ribbons that Caponigro earned but never collected for his service to the country.
“It is with a sincere gesture of gratitude that I give you these. You earned them. You are the greatest generation,” Smith said, sitting next to Caponigro in his living room, the two gentlemen clasped in a handshake.
For a short moment the veteran was teary-eyed.
Caponigro was born in Montclair on June 21, 1925, a first-generation Italian-American. His parents came to the United States from Lacedonia, Italy, when they were teenagers.
When he was 17 he joined the U.S. Navy with the help of his parents’ signatures, because he was too young to enlist without their consent.
“I thought it was the right thing to do,” he told the Asbury Park Press.
He was a part of the D-Day invasion, what Smith called the “decisive battle of World War II.” He lost his hearing during the battle and suffered another injury to his hand when he got hit by shrapnel. For the rest of his life he wore hearing aids.
“The sky was blacked out from the planes,” Caponigro recalled of the D-Day.
It did not stop him from raising seven children or making a career at DuMont Laboratories, before taking a job at Fort Monmouth for the U.S. Department of Defense.
“My grandmother who passed away a couple of years ago started the exercise of trying to retrieve medals and accommodations he might have earned as a result of his service,” said his grandson Robert Williams. “My grandfather didn’t ask for any of this. If you ask him what his legacy is, it would be his children, his grand-children and his great- grandchildren.”
One of the medals Caponigro received was the French Legion of Honor, the highest honor France bestows on non-French citizens, Smith said.
Caponigro was also awarded the World War II Victory Medal, the American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, Combat Action Ribbon, Honorable Service Ribbon, Navy Honorable Discharge Label, and the N.J. Distinguished Service Medal.
Even Caponigro’s great-grandchildren understood the importance of the medals he finally received.
“Poppy is a good man. He helps others. During the war there was a big bomb and he lost his hearing. One time he was at our school because it was Veteran’s Day,” offered his 7-year-old great-granddaughter Marissa Williams.