At Saugus ceremony, family learns story behind hero “Pop” Virnelli’s Bronze Star
By Mark E. Vogler
Until about 10 months ago, former Saugus residents Frank and Jim Virnelli said, they never knew the story behind the heroic mission that earned their dad a Bronze Star and Air Medal posthumously after his death in World War II.
Master Sergeant Thomas “Pop” Virnelli earned those military decorations for putting his life on the line on Aug. 24, 1944, when he led a four-man team behind enemy lines to salvage any useable components from an L-5 plane that crashed near the French Alps. Virnelli and his crew had only 15 minutes to remove the radio, engine, propeller and instruments from falling into the hands of Germans. And they worked to accomplish their job while under heavy enemy fire from about 300 yards away.
The small Air Corps team, accompanied by a volunteer infantryman, moved toward the crash site at a time when U.S. forces were evacuating as superior German forces moved in, according to a summary of the incident based on the now-declassified “History of the 72d Liaison Squadron.” After Virnelli returned the infantryman back to his unit, the battalion commander “stated that it was the first time in his knowledge that the Air Corps had ever been in front of the infantry over the front lines,” the summary noted.
“We had never heard the Bronze Star story or any of the details until the dedication ceremony last March,” Frank Virnelli, 79, of Winchester, told The Saugus Advocate in a recent interview at Kane’s Donuts. He was referring to the ceremony organized by the 102d Intelligence Surveillance Reconnaissance Group at Otis National Guard Base in Buzzards Bay “honoring the memory of Master Sergeant Thomas ‘Pop,’ former 101st Observation Squadron pilot.”
Widow never knew the specifics for medals
The ceremonies included the dedication of several plaques paying tribute to “Pop,” in addition to the naming of a multipurpose room for social events and meetings. A colorful tribute sign hangs outside the officers’ club at Otis National Guard Base. The ceremonies, which drew an entourage of about 50 members of Virnelli’s family and friends, was planned in conjunction with the 100th anniversary celebration for the Massachusetts Air National Guard Unit.
The only thing the family knew prior to last March was the letter that “Pop’s” widow received from the military, acknowledging the Bronze Star and Air Medal “for meritorious service in connection with military operations against the enemy …”
“A lot of it was classified,” said Jim Virnelli, 78, another son, who lives with his wife, Sandy, in Hebron, Conn. Jim, a former scoutmaster of Saugus Boy Scout Troop 61 for more than three decades, joined his brother Frank for the recent interview.
“A big part of the ceremony focused on lot on telling that story. It’s a story that a lot of people don’t know about because it’s been kept secret for so long,” he said.
Frank and Jim Virnelli said they contacted The Saugus Advocate recently, hoping that the town would learn more about their dad, who emigrated from Italy to the United States at the age of 15.
A plaque honoring “Pop” notes that he volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army for World War I. “Upon his return he became an accomplished pilot and aviation advocate. He flew for American Airlines, where he amassed over 2,000 hours as first pilot. In 1928 he founded the Eastern Aero Club in Revere, one of the four original clubs in the Boston area,” the plaque says.
“Soon after, in 1930, he joined the 101st Observation Squadron, flying out of East Boston Airfield. While a traditional member of the squadron, in 1936 he founded Mayflower Airlines based out of Boston and New Bedford, serving Nantucket, Hyannis, Provincetown, Martha’s Vineyard, and Springfield. He also shared his love of flight constantly, teaching the first flight classes at the Boston Trade School, as well as other local vocational training centers,” it continues.
“As World War II approached, instead of remaining with the unit and flying anti-submarine patrols off the New England coast, he volunteered to go overseas, entering federal service on 25 November 1940 as a founding member of the 72d Liaison Squadron. He was put in charge of the Engineering Section during the unit’s activation and made sure the squadron was ready for their deployments to Algeria, Italy, and France,” the plaque says.
“Despite the logistical difficulties he faced, he remained ‘the most popular enlisted man’ and his continued exemplary performance resulted in his leading the Engineering Section for the remainder of his career. During his deployment he was also awarded the Bronze Star and Air Medal for his exceptional performance in combat operation.”
“A heartfelt loss”
The plaque also chronicles Master Sergeant Virnelli’s tragic death while flying a sortie on Jan. 24, 1945. His aircraft hit an unmarked high tension wire while in low-level flight at night. “At the time, his squadron commander remarked in the official unit history that ‘This was a great and serious loss to the organization….’ It was also a heartfelt loss for his family, community, and the 101st.”
The plaque calls him “an exemplary citizen-Airman and aviator…”
Master Sergeant Virnelli is among several thousand buried in Epinal American Cemetery in France.
Thomas Virnelli got his nickname because of his legendary status as an old-timer in a young man’s world. “You know, there were very few 50 year olds flying in World War II,” Frank Virnelli said. “Most were 18 or in their early 20s. They [the military] decided they weren’t going to have 50 year olds flying combat missions, so he was in charge of maintenance for his squadron.”
“My father was really a man’s man, who was respected by anyone who talked about him. He was known as the best mechanic his commanding officer had known of.”
Frank Virnelli said everything he has learned about his father long after his death “taught us how much we missed by him not having survived the war.” They learned that he was “a liaison pilot,” who flew dangerous missions, in light, unarmed, single-engine aircraft for artillery observations, reconnaissance, personnel transport and many other assignments.
Master Sgt. Virnelli’s Air Medal citation notes that many of his 35 sorties “were flown over enemy territory and in adverse weather conditions.”
“The only reason for flying a wooden, unarmed plane in bad weather over German positions was for airdropping propaganda leaflets or resupplying OSS and French Resistance operatives,” noted one report.
Mom was the unsung hero
In the shadow of their dad, the Virnelli children also developed a deep appreciation for their mom, who was left to provide for four young children. Mary Virnelli also had the responsibility of running a small farm on her own, on Homeland Avenue.
“It was not until many years later that I realized the incredible amount of work that she did,” Frank Virnelli recalled in a letter.
“She seemed to work 18 hours a day, raising and preparing much of the food that we ate and making many of the clothes that we wore. Somehow she always found time to read and I have always envied the way she could race through a good book in a fraction of the time that it took me.”
Mary Virnelli confided in a letter to a first lieutenant soon after losing her husband that she would step up for her late husband and make sure the children got the love and devotion they needed. “I’m going to bring up our four children so that one day I can say to them, ‘you are as fine a person as your father,’” Mary Virnelli wrote. “My Tom was doing the thing he wanted most to do. Defending the country we both love. He was very proud of his little Army ship.”