88 years on, they get their uncle back

A Spring Hill family is reunited with the memory of a World War I veteran.

Published November 14, 2006

SPRING HILL - Eighty-eight years after Francis Lupo was lost on a World War I battlefield, he also was fading from his family's memory.

Lupo's grief-stricken mother in Cincinnati hardly ever spoke of him, said his nephew, 74-year-old Joe Panno. Other family members knew only his name and that he had been classified as missing in action and presumed dead.

That changed Monday, when an Army representative visited Panno's home in Spring Hill to acknowledge the family's loss.

"Thank you," said Tony Panno, 42, Lupo's great-nephew. "This was always a missing chapter in our family's history, and now you filled it in."

Army mortuary affairs specialist Paul Bethke explained to Lupo's Hernando County relatives why they had been overlooked when other family members were invited to Lupo's burial at Arlington National Cemetery in September.

Bethke also gave them shells from the 21-gun salute fired in Lupo's honor and, most important, offered them a clear picture of who their uncle was.

Lupo was 23, unmarried and childless when he died at the Second Battle of Marne in July 1918. He weighed only 122 pounds and stood no more than 5 feet tall. He was so small, Bethke said, that his remains originally were identified as a woman's.

Ridges on his jawbone showed he had suffered malnutrition and repeated illness as a child, not unexpected considering Lupo came from a family of poor Italian immigrants.

Lupo's unit attacked and cut off a German supply line, Bethke said. It was a key part of a battle that turned the tide of the war in favor of the Allies, though with losses typical of the devastation of World War I.

Of the 12,000 soldiers in Lupo's 1st Infantry Division, more than 8,000 were killed or wounded or went missing in the battle.

Lupo apparently had been hastily buried - either by comrades or the enemy - in a churchyard in Soissons, France, about 60 miles northeast of Paris.

French archaeologists searching for artifacts near the church, which was preparing to expand, unearthed his remains.

Along with Lupo's bones and teeth, the archaeologists found his size 51/2 boots and a wallet with the embossed letters of his name still clearly visible.

"It was the wallet that really got this started," Bethke said.

The remains were delivered to an Army command formed in 2003 to recover the remains of missing soldiers. Lupo is the first GI from World War I the unit identified.

After the Army received the remains in 2004, it began the lengthy process of comparing them with what they could learn from Lupo's Army records.

The bones show he might have lied about being tall enough to meet the Army's 5-foot height requirement; the length of his femurs suggest he was more like 4-foot-10.

The dental records matched so well, Bethke said, the Army did not need to take the next step, comparing his DNA with that of his living relatives.

The Army then hired a private genealogist to find Lupo's next of kin, which is where the investigation took a wrong turn.

Because Lupo had no direct descendents, law requires the Army to notify the oldest living niece or nephew.

The genealogists found no record of Panno, so the Army instead delivered the wallet, holding a Catholic prayer card, to Rachel Kleisinger, 73, who lives near Cincinnati.

The Army flew her and two family members to Arlington for the burial and presented her with the flag that had been draped over Lupo's coffin.

Panno's daughter, Tina Phillips of Cincinnati, and his niece, Michele Simon of Spring Hill, heard about it on separate news broadcasts and had the same general reaction.

"I said, 'Oh my God! That's my dad's family,' " said Simon, 42.

They complained to the Pentagon, which promised Bethke would visit Panno. Bethke didn't bring the wallet or the flag, as family members had requested. But, along with the shells, he offered something approaching an apology.

"You do the best you can do with the information you have," Bethke said, adding that Kleisinger never told the Army about Lupo's other relatives.

Panno said he wasn't worried about any of that now. He was glad to have the binder full of Lupo's records that Bethke gave him, he said, and a new appreciation for what his uncle had accomplished.

"I'm happy," Panno said. "I'm very satisfied."

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Dan DeWitt can be reached at 352 754-6116 or dewitt@ sptimes.com.