Two Italian gardeners were working in their backyard this spring when something caught their eye.
The shiny item coming up through dirt near Rome turned out to be the dog tag for an American soldier from World War II. It belonged to Army Sgt. Mike Baranek, an Akron South High School graduate who died at age 64 in 1980, when he was living in Cuyahoga Falls. Baranek, an Ohio Edison retiree, took part in several battles in Europe with the 509th Parachute Infantry Regiment. He fought in Italy and was wounded twice.
The dog tag is back in Cuyahoga Falls with his widow, Nellie Baranek, 95, sent to her by the Italian gardeners Olga Romagnolo and her friend, known only as Simone. Its next journey will take it to another battlefield of sorts. The dog tag will be sent to Canada, where the veteran’s granddaughter, Tammy Mahoney, 41, will clasp it as she receives chemotherapy and radiation treatment for breast cancer in Niagara Falls, Ontario.
“I was very close to him,” said Mahoney, a Stow-Munroe Falls High School graduate and mother of three children. “By having this near me, hopefully it will get me through this.” The Baranek family learned the dog tag had been found a few days before Mahoney officially was diagnosed with cancer, she said.
Barbara Lane of Munroe Falls, Baranek’s daughter, said her own daughter believes that finding the dog tag is a divine sign. “Here I am. I am watching over you,” is Mahoney’s interpretation of the discovery of the dog tag, Lane said. Baranek’s son, also named Mike and himself an Army veteran, said his father rarely spoke of his military experiences. Records show his father received a Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, Bronze Stars and other medals for his service from about 1942 to 1944 with the 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion.
Posted on the website of the 509th Parachute Infantry Association, www.509thgeronimo.org, is an example of Baranek’s heroism.
“Sgt. Baranek, a communications sergeant, volunteered to accompany an officer and another enlisted man in the perilous task of clearing enemy land mines and booby traps from the route of advance,” the description reads. Coming upon heavy machine-gun fire on Mount Croce, they assaulted an enemy crew, then made a second attack. After the officer had “become a casualty,” the report said, Baranek and the other enlisted man captured and killed a gun crew and riflemen.
“Baranek’s coolness and disregard for enemy fire prevented many casualties among the members of the company and his heroic performance exemplifies the finest traditions of the armed forces,” the entry continues. The Italian gardeners, who live in a suburb of Rome, searched the Internet for clues about Baranek, whose dog tag listed his home address and hometown as Akron. Eventually they connected with Matt Anderson, the historian for the 509th.
Anderson said Baranek came ashore at Anzio on Jan. 22, 1944, and by Jan. 31, was about 12 miles inland at Carano, Italy. He said he believes Baranek might have lost his dog tag during June or July 1944, after the liberation of Rome, when the 509th had a liberal pass policy and troops often explored Rome.
“Your father was here and we are honored to give you back a little piece of him and a big piece of memory at the same time,” Romagnolo wrote by email to…