Great Nephew Connects with Great Uncle He Never Knew through Research and Travel

Born in the 1980s, Dan Mercurio never met his great uncle SSgt. Robert Mercurio, who died in World War II. Killed in a plane crash in England in January 1945 and buried in Cambridge American Cemetery, few people alive today have a distinct, personal memory of Robert. And with every passing year, this number continues to shrink. But for some, like Dan, the bond of family and the desire to honor the service and sacrifice of Americans who died in World War II gives them a drive to uncover the past and reignite the memory of a lost family member.

As a pilot Dan’s work brought him to London in the summer of 2016. Knowing he wasn’t far from IWM Duxford, and having a faint knowledge that his great uncle flew on a plane in the war, he and a colleague, Rich Tichacek, took a day trip to the museum. Having no expectations to find information related to his great uncle, the men perused the museum and came across an area that included names of Americans who died in the war. Unexpectedly, Dan saw his great uncle’s name on the list, along with his burial location of Cambridge American Cemetery. He immediately went to the information desk to ask about the cemetery location. An ocean away from home and by sheer chance, Dan found himself just five minutes from his great uncle’s gravesite.   

What had begun as a tourist day trip, suddenly turned into a family obligation. Hopping into a cab, Dan and Tichacek arrived at the cemetery just 15 minutes before closing, and found Suzie Harrison, cemetery interpretive guide, taking down the American flag for the day. “She stopped what she was doing and walked me to his grave,” said Dan. “She dressed up the grave with the sand and the flags, and we got a chance to be there. She allowed us to stay and be with Robby for as long as we desired, even past the closing time of the cemetery.” Dan had become the first person in his family to visit Robert’s gravesite.

That day in the Cambridge area sparked a flame in Dan to find out more about his great uncle. And when he shared the news with his 92-year-old grandmother Ida Mercurio, it turned his interest into a quest. “My grandma was the driving force,” said Dan. “She spoke about how it was really, really tough for my grandpa, and his other brother.” As the sister-in-law to Robert, Dan’s grandmother saw first-hand how his death took a toll on her husband, Nicholas Mercurio. Having never visited his resting place and having little information about his death, Ida felt some solace and peace after hearing about Dan’s experience. Unfortunately, Dan never had the opportunity to share the news with his grandfather since he had passed away years prior. “I'm really upset that my grandfather isn't here with us to witness all of this unfold, but I have to believe that he is still seeing it all,” said Dan.

These experiences spurred Dan to continue his search to connect further with his great uncle. During his second visit to the cemetery he brought flowers. But with only a handful of hours to spare on that work trip, Dan’s visit was short. After returning home, he started looking at crash reports and Google maps. He began scouring the internet, trying to find anything related to his great uncle and the 453rd Bomb Group.

Dan’s work brought him back to London in November 2017, and on his third visit he wanted to see his uncle’s crash site. He travelled to Attleborough, England, which is near Old Buckenham Airfield, where Robert had been stationed during the war. A gentleman from the 453rd Bombardment Group Museum gave Dan a tour of the town and the air base, and then took him to the crash site. Nearly 73 years after Robert’s death, Dan stood in the location where his great uncle lost his life in World War II.

Through his research he discovered that the plane his uncle was on had been severely iced up on take-off.  Despite having been de-iced, it began to re-accumulate as they waited for the other planes in their group. With orders to take-off, the plane couldn’t get fully airborne and crashed. “He and his crew were the absolute best that the Army Air Forces could utilize,” said Dan. “They braved a very dismal take-off roll knowing every bit of information entering their departure. In my opinion, Uncle Robby died as a hero for all other heroes.”

Through Dan’s research he also discovered that part of the reason it had been so difficult to find information about his great uncle was because of his role on a Pathfinder crew. These crews carried experimental radar and navigational technologies. To protect this technology and intelligence from the enemy, information related to Pathfinder crew deaths tended to be restricted, leaving grieving families with little information about their loved one.

Today, Robert rests in Cambridge American Cemetery underneath a big oak tree, overlooking a bluff. Less than two years ago, a fortuitous day brought Dan to his gravesite. Since that day, the memory of Robert has grown and blossomed for a new generation of the Mercurio family. “On the day that we found my uncles' grave, Suzie had officially led us on a path to something absolutely extraordinary,” said Mercurio.

About ABMC:

Established by Congress in 1923, the American Battle Monuments Commission commemorates the service, achievements, and sacrifice of U.S. armed forces. ABMC administers 26 overseas military cemeteries, and 29 memorials, monuments, and markers.