For decades, Benjamino Marraccini kept the mementos of another life in a closet inside a scuffed suitcase with broken hinges: old letters sent home to his mother, photographs faded to the color of desert sand and a cloth badge plucked from the jacket of a dead German soldier.
Much like those tokens, Marraccini, who turns 97 on Friday, preferred to keep his memories of what he saw during World War II to himself.
And it’s not hard to understand why.
“It was terrible. The smell of death was all around,” Marraccini said Thursday, the sweep of a withered hand conjuring the Normandy beach where he and thousands of other American soldiers came ashore during the D-Day invasion of 1944 — and where many of them died.
It was Marraccini’s great-nephew, Joe Tito, who helped coax the stories out of his relative, now living in a Gold Coast retirement home. And Friday, the consul general of France for the Midwest region, Guillaume Lacroix, will present Marraccini with France’s highest award, the French Legion of Honor medal. Anyone who fought on French territory during World War II is eligible, said a spokeswoman for the consul general.
Tito, an investigator with the Chicago Fire Department, said he expects he’ll be emotional when his uncle steps up to accept his medal.
“I’m very weak that way,” said Tito, 61. “I cry at commercials. It’s terrible.”
On Thursday, sitting in a wheelchair with what remains of his white hair slicked back and a hearing aid in each ear, Marraccini was fretting over what he was going to say Friday.
“With my thyroid problem, I can’t speak as clearly as I want to,” said Marraccini, his voice husky.
Chances are, he’ll have no trouble commanding the room’s attention. Exact dates and places are cloaked in a permanent fog, but many of Marraccini’s memories remain vivid.
Marraccini, who grew up in the Bridgeport neighborhood the son of Sicilian immigrants, was an artillery man firing a booming 40 mm gun at German warplanes.
He would aim the gun’s long barrel up at the sky, never sure if his gun or another artillery man’s had hit the enemy aircraft.
“It was like the fireworks on the Fourth of July. All different [colored tracers] going in different ways,” he said.
There are some things he would prefer to forget — like an allied soldier killed in a foxhole.
“He had a big hole in his back with maggots coming out,” he said.
Marraccini said he was one of the lucky ones: “Somebody must have been looking after me.”
When he returned to Chicago, he became a furniture upholsterer. He lived with a woman for 40 years, although they never married. Why not?
“I was a gambler, a horse player,” he said. “Some of the younger fellers that were married and were addicted were thrown out of their house by their wives. If I got married, it would surely happen to me.”
Marraccini’s live-in partner died in 2008. He has not withdrawn from life. Far from it. He says he has a healthy appetite, still loves to listen to the Big Band music that was popular with so many American GIs.
And he likes to dance. To prove it, he eased out of his wheelchair and swayed his creaky hips from side to side.
He said he may show the French dignitaries some of his moves on Friday.