Two families that served with honor; Natick plans ceremonies for Grupposo, Arena brothers

The Boston Globe
May 24, 2009 Sunday

BYLINE: By Megan McKee, Globe Correspondent

SECTION: REGIONAL; West; Pg. 1

LENGTH: 855 words

Consider the sacrifices made by two Natick families – the Grupposos and the Arenas – as they fought in America’s wars and lived through times both perilous and precious.

Five Grupposo brothers battled the nation’s foes: Sebastian, Joe, Robert, and Vincent in World War II, and Tony in Korea.

Six Arena sons answered the call: Salvatore, John, Frank, Tony, and Joe in World War II, and Jim in Korea; Joe, who had stayed in the Navy, took part in both wars.

As first-generation Americans born of immigrant Italian parents, the Grupposos and Arenas saw military service as their patriotic duty, taking both the glories and trials of war with stoic acceptance.

“Nobody ever griped about it,” said Jim Arena, 79. “If you got drafted, you got drafted.”

“We were not war heroes,” said Sebastian “Busty” Grupposo, 90. “We were just part of the rest of the country that went out and did their job.”

Tomorrow the nation celebrates Memorial Day, honoring the fallen veterans of all wars. And this week Natick pays tribute to these two families.

Immediately after the town’s parade tomorrow, the intersection of Morse and Garfield streets will be dedicated to the five Grupposo brothers. Sebastian and Tony will be there to accept the honor, standing in for their deceased brothers.

Next Saturday at 11 a.m., the intersection of Cottage and Farwell streets will be named in honor of the six Arena brothers. Three – John, Frank and Jim – are still living.

John MacGillivray, the town’s veterans agent, said it is important that residents and others traveling through Natick know about the people who have served their country

“It’s particularly gratifying when you can do this and some of these people are still alive,” said MacGillivray.

The surviving brothers are witnesses to history.

Sebastian Grupposo was a soldier in North Africa and Europe during World War II, but he doesn’t like to tell war stories.

His memories zig and zag across the years and his voice chokes with emotion. He remembers his father crying with worry about the family’s lack of food during the Great Depression, and recalls images of his brother Joe returning from his time as a World War II prisoner of war hobbled by frostbitten feet.

“There were good times and bad times,” said Sebastian, recalling the war years and what led up to them. “Mostly bad times.”

Jim Arena was too young to fight in World War II, but he remembers translating his brothers’ letters into Italian for their Sicilian-born mother. She rarely talked about her emotions but he could tell she was in pain.

“I could see it in her face,” he said.

A few years later, Jim, the youngest of 10, joined the Marines and ended up in Korea. He received a Purple Heart after getting hit with shrapnel and losing part of a finger.

Moving away from war, the brothers in both families settled into the process of forging lives for themselves in Natick.

Sebastian Grupposo served in the National Guard for the rest of his working career while starting a family and holding down a part-time job at his uncle’s store, Grupposo’s Market, a Natick Center fixture until the 1980s. After he retired, he became a Town Meeting member, and was appointed a town constable. He was also Natick’s veterans agent for a few years, and still works several hours a week as the town’s parking clerk.

“Some people refer to him as the mayor of Natick,” said his son, Kevin. “He’s pretty outspoken.”

Until recent years, Sebastian marched in full uniform in just about every Memorial Day and Labor Day parade. Kevin Grupposo said his father never really opened up about his earlier days until he had heart bypass surgery in 2006. And he still doesn’t talk about the war much. Neither did his brothers.

They all learned self-reliance from their parents, who arrived at Ellis Island with $20 in their pockets.

“They learned the American way,” said Kevin Grupposo. “If you work hard, then you get rewarded. If you didn’t, well, that’s your tough luck.”

For the Arenas, whose father Antonio was a home builder, serving has been the norm. Jim Arena said he looked up to his older brother, Salvatore, or Salvi as he was known, who enlisted in the Marines a week after Pearl Harbor and saw brutal fighting in three major Pacific battles: Guadalcanal, Cape Gloucester, and Peleliu, where one-third of his First Marine Division was killed or wounded.

Salvi Arena returned to have a full career with the Natick Fire Department, but was haunted by his experiences. While working overnight shifts at the station, he’d sometimes wake up his fellow firefighters with his terrifying dreams.

Other Arena brothers returned and built their lives in Natick as well. Jim was a letter carrier from 1956 to 1992, and still knows the addresses of the people on his route. John joined the police force in 1949 and retired as chief in 1987. Frank, 83, started a successful waste-management business before moving to Virginia.

“I’m very honored. We’re all very honored,” John Arena said of the town’s plans to recognize his family’s contributions. “This is something you never expect in life. I just regret that Salvi, Joe, and Tony aren’t alive to see it.”

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