CUYAHOGA FALLS, Ohio — An Italian couple was gardening in their backyard this past spring when something caught their eye.
The shiny item coming up through dirt near Rome turned out to be the dog tag of 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, Ohio.
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, after being sent by the Italian couple, 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 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, Ohio, Baranek’s daughter, said her daughter believes that finding the dog tag is a divine sign.
“’Here I am. I am watching over you,’” Lane said is Mahoney’s interpretation of the discovery of the dog tag.
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.
Posted on the infantry’s website, 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 ask of clearing enemy land mines and booby traps from the route of advance,” the description read.
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.
“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 continued.
The Italian couple searched the Internet for clues about Baranek, whose dog tag listed his 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, following 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 Baranek’s son.
This summer, Jim Leone, 64, of Stow, Ohio, hopes to visit his parents’ native Italy with relatives. Roland Leone, who died in 2009 at the age of 94, served in the same company as Baranek and the two were friends.
Jim Leone plans to visit Olga and Simone to thank them for finding the dog tag and sending it back to the Baranek family.
Tammy Mahoney said that over the next several months she will hold the dog tag in her hand during treatment for cancer.
Words cannot describe having the memento at this important time in her life, she said. “It’s a story you would see in a movie.”