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Behind The Steel Curtain Issues a Memorial Day Salute

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Memorial Day reaches all of us in different ways. For some, it's a nice day off, celebrating the commerce-driven message of it being the official start to the summer.

For others, it is about remembering what was sacrificed by those before us. One of the many great things about the Behind The Steel Curtain community is its reliance on history and storytelling.

While this story was not written by a member of our community (at least not to my knowledge), what ran through my mind, other than the emotion of knowing my grandfather was one of the fortunate few who survived D-Day (he rode one of the gliders the story talks about), was the BTSC Community will want to read this.

And so here it is, courtesy of Pittsburgh-based agent Ralph Cindrich.

Story told to and written by his sister Frances R. Monroe of San Diego, Ca.

Shortened and adapted by one of his players

"I coached nearly every young boy in the town of Avella in some sport or another during these years. Many of them are adults now. They still call me Coach. They still come to see me to talk about the game. And when we finish talking, they are sure to give me the one-hand punch. It is a reminder to me. It is as if to say: Life hands you many punches, but it is how you take the punch that makes a difference."

Mario Gabrielli left Waynesburg College and his football scholarship at 18 years old for World War II in Europe. The date was Feb. 12, 1943 and when it was time to come home, he was minus a leg - and more.

"My ambitions were to play pro football. That's all I ever wanted to do."

Instead, he was our Pee Wee football coach. Some thought he was too tough on us, and the war, with his lost leg, made him that way. He had a wooden cane to help him get around and he used it as a coaching tool. If you jumped offside or screwed up, your head would ring for 10 minutes from one bang of that cane on your helmet. It never hurt but it caught your attention and there was not much jumping offside.

I will never forget one cold and rainy November day.

Our team huddled around the warmth of the coal furnace where we dressed in the basement of an old building. There was a hard, freezing rain outside. Spirits were high with laughing and clowning - no one would make kids practice in this weather---no one, except Mario.

And practice we did, but only after stretching on the wet ground, front and back, and doing grass drills - diving in the mud, jumping up with knees pumping, over and over, again and again. When we finished the drill, Mario positioned the ball in the middle of a large puddle. "Gentlemen (it was that or "men"), we are going live." That's live, as in smashing into one another at full speed-hitting, tackling, and blocking.

A few headed for the warm basement and never looked back but the rest knew we couldn't quit--it would be worse at home. Ours was a town of first and second generation immigrants whose parents and grandparents were coal miners, steelworkers, and farmers.
No pat on the back for staying, just a loud "Line up." When it was over, he called us to gather around him.

"You think I am hard on you- I've heard the stories. Men, this was about preparing and toughening you so you don't quit. If it is cold and rainy, or snowing and icy when you play your game, you will handle it because you have gone through it and you'll know you can handle it. And the weather won't be as bad then as it is today because if it is, they will call the game off. Now, get out of here."

We played the late November game in frigid weather on an icy field against a district and team twice our size--- an army against the 20 or so of us. We heard their snickers and laughs about how we looked. They pranced and tiptoed around in their pretty, matching uniforms, wearing gloves, sweatshirts and jackets looking like cheerleaders.

We owned them that November day.

Mario was the son of Italian immigrants from the village of Avella in the southwestern part of Pennsylvania. A superb athlete, Mario was tough and always in shape but he would never forgive the Army for one experience: A train trip in Africa that took two to three days, men standing shoulder to shoulder in cattle cars. They used open buckets as toilets.

War came in Palermo, Sicily. "I remember hearing shelling in the distance...the cold fear in the pit of my stomach. I didn't allow myself to feel anymore. I cared for nothing...except the 9th Infantry Division, 60th Regiment Headquarters Company. It rolls off my lips with pride." German artillery pounded his company in Sicily, and he scrambled for cover where he met Bill Craig from the much larger Class AA Trinity High School. Mario's Avella team won 5-0, and he scored all the points with a 53-yard field goal and a two-point safety.

"My teammates carried me off the field. I won my scholarship to Waynesburg College that night." The scholarship was Mario's ticket to his dream of playing professional football. Coaching was a part of him and he trained boxers in England. "We were the undefeated division champion of the 9th Division boxing team."

If you played for Mario, you gave it your best in everything you did, all the time---no excuses, no lip. You just did it---period. His was a strict Italian upbringing.

"I did my job and I did it well. That's what my dad expected of me, and I wanted him to be proud of me." He never used a bazooka before and he wasn't sure if all the others intentionally tried to miss the target but ..."in everything I did, I tried to do my best."

He carried this six- to eight-foot "stovepipe" into battle.

He landed in Normandy on June 10, 1944. "As soon as we started to move inward, we saw bodies of paratroopers hanging from their chutes in the trees...some covered with them on the ground. Gliders were all over the place; smashed bodies clearly seen with no time to move them out. There were many German soldiers left behind. I had guard duty and two men had their throats cut, killed the first night. I got my sleep wherever and whenever possible. I wanted to sleep under a tree but no-good, airburst would get you. I thought about the woods-no, same."

Shelling started at 7 a.m. on June 15, 1944 and before nightfall, his future, life, and dreams would forever change.

His patrol ran into a platoon of 13 men coming from where they had heard shooting. "The leader, the next soldier, and all 13 men behind him had a bullet in or through them. "They tell us we are in no man's land ... in enemy territory and there are snipers in the trees, as well as machine-gun emplacements." Bullets went whizzing by his head and he dove for cover. "I watched daisies swaying back and forth in the soft breeze. I remember birds chirping. And I started thinking about home, about football, going home."

His patrol started moving and then "screeching overhead pierced my eardrums. Artillery! Heavy land artillery - 88 mm shells! Three fired sequentially. The first landed over my head to the rear and the next shell fell in front of my position. I didn't see or hear the third shell. It hit right on top of me. I felt myself flying through the air. I remember hitting the ground."

"I felt no pain. I opened my eyes. I was thinking about a Humphrey Bogart movie I had seen. I thought this is it. I am dying. I said aloud, "God, don't let me die.' ... I yelled, Medic. Mike, will I lose my leg? He never looked at me ... said nothing. My right leg was gone--blown off by the 88 mm shell. From then on, it seemed that I kept dreaming of running. I could not stop running."

"They stuck my bayonet into the ground, a blood plasma bag attached to it. I looked around to see hundreds and hundreds of bayonets stuck into the ground, and all around men crying and groaning."

When he arrived home, it was in a wheelchair with crutches to the side, a wooden leg, and his good leg in a brace.

"The shock and grief was on all the faces of my family and friends. ... But I was proud. I wore my uniform when they came. I was still Mario Gabrielli of Avella, Pennsylvania, proud to have had a chance to do my part for a better world, for my country, for my family, for my sisters, for my town, for my friends."

Mario found a county job, married, and became postmaster of the town he loved. He marched proudly at the front of each Avella parade looking straight ahead like he was marching into battle.

I visited Mario in the spring of every year when I played College and Pro ball. He would ask endless questions. His face and eyes showed a kid's excitement. I never said to Mario what I would say to him today but we both knew. When it was over, we exchanged hard punches with Mario always throwing the first.

Mario died of a massive heart attack on August 8, 1992. He was my little league football coach and he was my hero.

We miss you pal.