In 1945, 21-year-old Auburn native Frank Mucedola was already a hardened infantry technical sergeant with the 304th Regiment of the 76th division of the U.S. Army when a new officer came on the European battlefield.
His name was Richard James Keefe, a 19-year-old from Minnesota. Keefe spent three months in officers candidate school and came to Mucedola's I Company as a second lieutenant. Though Keefe was a grizzled combat veteran compared to the baby-faced, Mucedola, the newly minted officer, they became friends fast .
"Officers were replaced just as much as frontline soldiers were at that point," Mucedola said. "The ones who came from officers candidate school were so green, we nicknamed them '90-Day Wonders.' They were totally inexperienced. Many of us had been in battle and these 'wonders' would come in and try to give us orders they learned from a book."
Still, Keefe and Mucedola formed a bond, one that would last 50 years. Keefe died of cancer 10 years ago and Mucedola still misses his friend and war buddy.
"Dick was a peach of a guy," Mucedola said. "We knew each other, we were together 24 hours a day, it was much better that way. You knew what the other person was made of, how they would react. Our lives were at stake, we needed to depend on each other."
'Graphic novel' concept
Keefe's son, Jim, was looking for just this kind of information. Keefe, a graduate of the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon and Graphic Art, is the writer and artist of the nationally syndicated cartoon, "Flash Gordon."
He became interested in his father's World War II experiences and began researching what life was like as an American soldier in the Allied European campaign.
Keefe is researching his father's military exploits to create a "graphic novel," a genre using cartoon drawings to telltory in a more graphic fashion.
"The graphic novel uses the artistic format of cartoon with the reality of the storyline," Keefe said. "What I would like to do is a history not of the 76th, but I Company alone so I can personalize it."
Keefe envisions his graphic novel of I Company as an illustrated history using sequential art. "Words and pictures, the marrying of the two art forms, both can tell a story and, sometimes, one picture frame speaks volumes without words."
Keefe said an excellent example of the graphic novel is Joe Kubert's "Fax From Sarajevo."
Finding a father's comrades
Keefe's research lead him to Auburn and Mucedola.
"My mother told me about Frank, " Keefe said. "She said what good friends my father had been with him in the service and how they kept in contact after the war, but she had not talked with Frank in quite a while after my father died. I had no idea how to contact him."
Keefe's mother said if he was ever lucky enough to met Mucedola, he would feel as if they were friends immediately.
"My mother was always amazed, years would go by, but when Frank and my father got together, it was like no time had elapsed at all," Keefe said. "They would pick up where they left off. My brother Mike did an e-mail search for Frank, found the Web site for his sextet and I took a chance that he was still alive and wrote him to ask if he would be interested in speaking with me."
Mucedola wrote back to Keefe, sending a package filled with I Company information. He also invited Keefe to spend a weekend at his State Street, Auburn home.
Keefe accepted the invitation with excitement. "From the moment I walked in Franks' door, I felt at home," he said. "I fully understand why my father and Frank were friends for so many years. He was so warm and open. Being with Frank and his wife Adriana was like being with family."
Mucedola was the I Company historian. He says his memory is as clear today about World War II as it was 60 years ago.
When Mucedola and Keefe were discharged, they were given a small chapbook titled, "Nix Verstech" (I Don't Understand). In it was a chronicled history of their company with loose photographs and drawings. This book provided the basis of Keefe's research, but he needed more.
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"When you read history books, you can get a history of the 76th division that the 304th was under, but you don't read the human aspect of war," Keefe said. "These soldiers were 19- and 20-year-old men when they began World War II and were put in a situations where they had to rise to heights no normal person is ever asked to do. It is something I can't fathom, I've never been through what my father went through. Finding out more of the personal information gave me a desire to show that in graphic novel form."
As the end of the war neared, the more savage the fighting became. The 304th was part of the Third Army, which in early 1945 was under General George Patton.
The men of I Company "had to get across the rivers to set up bridges to get tanks across," Mucedola said. "Foot troops went first, crossing the Kyll River to establish a bridge. Then the engineers designed a stronger bridge that tanks could get across."
Bridges were blown, swift-flowing rivers deeply gorged, the countryside hostile and fortified. "There was a fanatic enemy to put down," Mucedola said. "Here were obstacles, the Germans felt, which would form an impassable barrier to our troops advancing. Yet we sped onward over every obstacle, not without bitter and costly battles, but with swiftness and precision. Four hundred miles in 50 days - this is what the 304th Infantry's thrust into Nazi Germany accomplished."
Horrors, costs of combat
One of the terrible stories Mucedola shared with Keefe was about another sergeant who, before the war, was a train conductor from Utica.
"At that time, the New York Central Railroad ran through Auburn and this sergeant would always tell me when the war was over, he was going to stop in Auburn, come to my house and have spaghetti dinner," Mucedola said. "We used to talk about it all the time."
His fellow-sergeant would never make the meal. "About two weeks before the war was over, we went on a reconnaissance patrol," he said. "We went to a farmhouse and asked if there were any Germans there. The farmer told us no, they'd left a long time ago. But as I walked around to the back of the house, a German soldier was sneaking up on us. I came face to face with him and shot him dead. I yelled to the others, and the sergeant who so wanted the spaghetti dinner, got shot in the stomach. He looked at me and said, 'I'm gonna die,' and I watched him do so. He never got his spaghetti dinner. Those are the memories you live with every day because of war."
Keefe recently found in an old suitcase pictures of his father taken with a Kodak Brownie camera. "These pictures are of the occupation of different areas of Germany, loading up trucks, the aqueducts, playing baseball, the local children," he said. "My father wrote on the back of every picture so I know what the subject matter is. These pictures give a personal view of what his service was like."
Mucedola and Keefe's father stayed in touch after the war. Mucedola resumed his civilian life as a fixture on the Central New York music scene for many years, playing accordion in various dance bands and, when the musical score required, filled the accordion chair with various symphony orchestras.
He has been touring with the world-renowned Mantovani Orchestra as their accordionist since 1985 in the United States, Canada, and East Asia.
Col. Richard Keefe went back to Minneapolis, Minn., worked for Westinghouse Corp., married and had six children.
"I never let the horrors of war bother me," Mucedola said. "Many men had to receive psychiatric help when they came back. I did what I had to do. I'm not happy I had to do it, but when you get into a situation as I did where it is the enemy or you, the law of self preservation says it is going to be him."
Mucedola has been a civilian for 60 years, but there is a part of him that will remain, forever, a soldier. "I still dream about the Army. I must have gone back to the Army a thousand times in my dreams," he said.
His experiences, his understanding of the true horrors and costs of combat leave him with strong views about war. "Today I feel strongly that war is only a temporary solution," Mucedola said. "It solves nothing in the long run. I believe you should solve problems diplomatically whenever possible. War never solved anything. Every 20 years, somebody wants to move a boundary line, and you're at war again and again."
in black and white
Relating his father's and Mucedola's experiences poses a difficult problem for Keefe, because like most Americans, combat is not only something they've never encountered, but the concept is "unfathomable."
And, ironically, that is what motivates Keefe the most. "I am compelled to tell his story," Keefe said. "What I don't want is heavy narrative. I want to step back and represent the events as they happened. I don't want to dramatize it, they don't need it."
Keefe hopes to recapture the essence of the truth, in starkly vivid black-and-white. "I believe color would detract from the poignancy of the piece," he said. "I prefer working in black-and-white, and I believe realism is important."
Mucedola's input, memory and vision has been "invaluable," Keefe said. "He's been incredibly generous in sharing his memories with me. I don't know if I could have had the same conversation with my father about World War II that I have had with Frank."