Service in cave commemorates 75th anniversary of event.
On Christmas Eve, Don Bertino walked into an abandoned salt mine in Holland for the first time in 75 years.
Bertino, 95, had last been in the cave during World War II, when he was in the 9th Army’s 131st Anti-Aircraft Artillery Battalion. He was there with about 250 other soldiers for a Christmas Eve Mass with the underground mine providing protection from a German attack.
Bertino was invited to the 75th anniversary of the Mass by the Foundation of the Commemoration of the American Christmas Celebration 1944. Bertino said Jons van Dooren, the president of the foundation’s board, helped with the trip.
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Bertino said he thought to himself, “Is this happening?” when he walked into the mine on Dec. 24.
“It was like a dream come true,” he said. “I had no idea I’d ever be in that cave again.”
After the mass in 1944, Bertino and the other soldiers were given pieces of coal and told to write their names on the wall. He wrote his home state of Pennsylvania under his name.
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“It’s still there like the day I put it up,” he said.
Bertino said he spoke briefly during the commemoration service. He said he mentioned his friend, Sal Capozzi, who was in his unit but has since died.
Bertino said he had not given the Christmas Eve Mass much thought until Capozzi’s daughter, Mary Ann, contacted him about five years ago. She had discovered a photo of the names on the wall in her late father’s belongings.
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Now, Mary Ann Capozzi and her family are close friends with Bertino and his family.
Before the commemoration, Bertino had lunch with the 220 people who were going to attend. On Christmas Day, he attended Mass at a cathedral in Maastricht, Holland, near the cave. Afterwards, he had lunch with the bishop, who asked him about his time in the Army.
“He wanted me to discuss World War II, all the way through,” Bertino said.
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Bertino also visited a cemetery during his trip where 8,000 American soldiers were buried. He went to a housing development that was built at the spot where the 90 mm anti-aircraft gun that his unit fired shot down at least 18 German planes in 1944.
“It was an old farmer’s field at that time,” he said.
Bertino said he was treated well on his trip. When he showed the airline a recommendation letter that van Dooren had written for him, he was upgraded to a first class seat. At the cemetery, the director asked him to sign a book with the signatures of important visitors. He signed under the signature of former First Lady Laura Bush.
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But Bertino says he doesn’t consider himself a VIP.
“I’m no hero,” he said. “I’m just a World War II soldier.”
Staff writer Steve DeVane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-486-3572.