More than 70 years and 4,500 miles separated Bennie Howard and Jury Galli.
But on Independence Day, a thin little sheet of metal imprinted with Howard’s name, military ID and hometown – Wendell – brought the two men together.
And before nearly 1,000 onlookers, Galli a warehouse worker from Pisa, Italy, returned the dog tags Howard lost on an Italian beach near Galli’s hometown when Howard was stationed there during World War II.
The presentation was the highlight of Wendell’s annual Independence Day celebration that also featured more traditional fare including a children’s parade down Main Street and free food for the large crowd that filled the J. Ashley Wall Towne Square on Monday.
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Both Howard and Galli made brief remarks from the stage at the town square before Galli presented him with the dog tag. Howard, who grew up on a tobacco farm outside Wendell, but didn’t return after World War II, was full of praise for the town he grew up in.
“You people look just like you did when I left: pretty, healthy and making a go of it,” Howard said.
“I left Wendell when I was 16 years old. Didn’t really know what I was going to. I left Wendell with a little handbag in my hand, but I knew somebody was expecting me. Some promises were made and those promises were fulfilled. And when they told me they had found one of my dog tags, I thought, ‘Well you can’t hide, can you?’”
Howard downplayed his role in the war effort, but Galli said Howard and his fellow World War II veterans deserved the recognition and appreciation of people all over Europe.
“I read in an interview that Mr. Bennie does not feel like a hero. It’s true. You are all heroes who fought. You were so young, but you fought for the freedom of an older country. With this return, I want to honor Mr. Bennie and all veterans who fought and are (now) fighting for freedom. Long live freedom,” Galli said.
The return of the dog tags sparked interest well beyond Wendell’s borders. A Tuesday morning segment on “Good Morning America” recounted the efforts Galli made to find Howard.
Though Wendell’s Independence Day observance may have been the most unusual in eastern Wake County, it was far from the only celebration. In Zebulon, fireworks exploded over Five County stadium for four nights in a row, culminating with the largest display on Monday night after the Mudcats whipped the Salem Red Sox to end an eight-game losing streak before a crowd of 6,846.
In Knightdale, an even larger crowd filled Knightdale Station Park to hear beach music and sample food from nearly 40 food truck vendors before wrapping up the celebration with a fireworks display of their own.