Nicholas Rossi’s mother did not want him to join the military.
Her first-born son, with 3 brothers and 1 sister, had just graduated from Long Island’s Oyster Bay High School. But World War II was raging. Her father had fought in World War I. Nicholas ended up in the infantry.
If he was going to be in the service, his mother thought, at least get a different assignment. Thanks to someone his father knew — he worked as a caretaker on an estate — Rossi ended up in the Army Air Corps.
After training in Texas, his 305th Bombardment Group of the 364th Squadron was assigned to the 8th Air Force Bomber Command in England.
They flew B-17 “Flying Fortress” bombers in the European Theater. Rossi was a technical sergeant.
“I was not a professional engineer,” he recalls from his home in Westport, where — age 98 — he lives with his son Paul and daughter-in-law Marguerite. “But that aircraft was like a baby to me.”
Besides taking care of the planes on the ground, Rossi flew multiple missions. Seated behind the pilot and co-pilot, he handled fuel and any mechanical problems.
The Germans “shot the hell out of us,” Rossi says. But he was never shot down.
He survived the war. Now — over 75 years later — Nicholas Rossi is the grand marshal of Westport’s Memorial Day parade, on May 31.
When the war ended, Rossi’s mother hoped he’d come home. But superiors suggested he stay after his discharge, and help locate and identify the remains of military personnel.
He spent the next 4 years in Liege, Belgium as a civilian, employed by the government with the American Graves Registration Command.
“It was not a nice job,” he says simply. But it provided closure for families, particularly those that traveled to Europe to reclaim their sons and husbands.
After returning to Long Island in 1949, he entered Hofstra University on the GI Bill. “They treated soldiers well,” Rossi says. After graduation he earned a master’s degree in industrial engineering.
A successful career in the furniture industry followed, with Kroehler, Thomasville and Lexington. As a manufacturer’s representative and regional sales manager — and with an intuitive sense for sales and business — he earned accolades and awards.
After more than 40 years — by then in his 70s — Rossi retired. He had more time for hobbies like golf (he’d won the Brookville Country Club championship, and played into his 90s), gardening, Knights of Columbus, Oyster Bay Italian-American Citizens Club, and the country club board.
He especially enjoyed his many grandchildren.
Rossi first met Betty Braun on the Long Island Rail Road, heading home from work. Married for 60 years, they raised 5 children — Paul, Christine, Caren, Carla and Peter — in the house he built in Mill Neck.
When Betty died 3 years ago, Rossi moved to Paul’s house in Greens Farms. Almost instantly, he became a Senior Center regular. He had a regular lunch table group (ladies flocked to him), and enjoyed chair aerobics, bingo, conversation groups and Dr. Paul Epstein’s mind/body sessions. All that is now on hold, due to COVID.
“He’s taken full advantage of Westport,” his daughter-in-law — and ardent companion — says.
“The war made him resilient. He just picked up, came here and rolled with it.”
Rossi also got involved with St. Luke’s Church. He met fellow veterans at the VFW. He especially loved watching his grandchildren Caroline, Charlotte and Nick perform as actors, musicians and athletes at Staples High School.
Even before he moved here, Rossi attended the Memorial Day ceremony at Veterans Green, where his grandchildren performed.
Later this month, he’ll be back for another parade, wreath-laying and “Taps.”
This time, it will be in a well-deserved seat of honor.