Joe Cicchinelli will do everything he can to make sure the World War II efforts of the 551st Parachute Infantry Battalion are never forgotten.
The battalion unit of 829 men, which included Cicchinelli, fought at the Battle of the Bulge, the five-week German offensive in the winter of 1944 that took place in the densely forested Ardennes Mountains region of Belgium.
Overall, American forces suffered some 89,000 casualties, including 19,000 fatalities, making the Battle of the Bulge the largest and bloodiest battle the Americans fought in World War II.
Many have referred to the 551st as the Lost Battalion because it disbanded days after the battle, and the records of its service were either lost or destroyed.
“I want everyone to know what we did and don’t want any of it forgotten,” said Cicchinelli, a Sun City West resident.
Cicchinelli has a number of items from World War II and the battle on display at the R.H. Johnson Library in Sun City West. Many of his medals, along with black and white photos from when his company landed in Belgium just before he was captured by the Nazis, are on display.
“It’s important to me that our story remains out there, because many people want to believe that we didn’t exist, but that is not true,” Cicchinelli said.
Six months after World War II started in July 1942, Cicchinelli volunteered for the Army infantry and went through many weeks of parachute training. The battalion operated independently and was not sent to Europe until April 1944.
The 551st, part of the 82nd Airborne Division, had been sent to Belgium in December, where they would face their biggest action against the Germans in the Battle of the Bulge.
“I’ll never forget that attack as long as I live,” he said.
During the battle, Cicchinelli met Sgt. Don Thompson, a platoon leader who had been injured in the leg.
Cicchinelli heard Thompson moaning and decided to crawl back through barbed wire to save him, dragging the injured man back to safety.
“Joe truly is a selfless man, and I owe him a lot,” said Thompson, who lives in Sedona.
From that point, Cicchinelli became separated from his battalion and was later taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans. He remembered going through six months of interrogation.
“They threatened to tie me to a tree and shoot me as a saboteur,” Cicchinelli said.
He eventually escaped the prisoner of war camp and returned home to his wife and 7-month-old daughter.
“It’s amazing that many people don’t know we exist but that’s because records are destroyed, but I was there and so were others,” he said.
Vince Micallef, R.H. Johnson Library director, said he’s honored to display many of Cicchinell’s items.
“This is a piece of history that I’m sure not many folks know about,” he said.