Frank Gagliardi never asked for the medals he earned during World War II.
And for more than 60 years, he rarely spoke of his service - from the bloody fighting in France's hedgerows to wounds he suffered as the Allies raced toward Germany.
"There were things we did you don't want to be reminded of," said the 84-year-old Southwest Philadelphia man.
But grateful family members want to remember what he did and obtained his medals from the Defense Department.
Last night, Gagliardi tearfully received them in an emotional surprise ceremony in Collingswood, where the Army veteran was lavished with praise that he had eschewed over the decades.
"I had no idea. This is a surprise. It's wonderful. Unbelievable," Gagliardi said after being greeted by a standing ovation from about 70 friends and family members at the Collingswood Community Center.
He came to the event thinking it was a Christmas party. Instead, he found himself the center of attention.
Gagliardi was given a shadow box filled with medals, including a Purple Heart with two Oak Leaf clusters, signifying his wounds; a Bronze Star for heroism and meritorious service, and a campaign medal with a Silver Star that indicates his participation in five military campaigns.
A nephew, John Gagliardi, of Gloucester Township, quietly arranged the event after convincing his uncle to sign a release form in the summer and to provide discharge papers so the medals could be obtained.
"In March 1943, my uncle enlisted in the U.S. Army to fight in World War II," the nephew told family and friends at the community center.
"He became a platoon sergeant and was awarded with numerous medals that he never received. That is the reason we are here this evening."
Family members were surprised to learn of Frank Gagliardi's extensive war record from an Inquirer report in May that focused on the possible closing of the veterans' post where Frank is commander.
The number of the World War II veterans at the Anthony and Harry Faustino VFW Post 6621, next door to Frank Gagliardi's house, is down to about 15.
"These are the guys who fought for our freedom," said John Gagliardi, 66, who owns Total Image, a hair salon in Collingswood. "I felt I had to do something for my uncle.
"Maybe I'm getting sentimental in my old age. I was crying when I wrote the speech" for last night's event, said the younger Gagliardi, a Navy veteran of Vietnam. "I feel good about this. It's the best thing I could have done for him."
Frank Gagliardi usually kept his war record to himself, said David Postiglione, John Gagliardi's son-in-law.
"When I asked him about the medals, he said, 'They're nothing,' like they didn't mean anything to him," said Postiglione, 39, administrator for an orthopedic surgical practice in Malvern. "I said, 'Uncle Frank, you earned those medals.'
"He said, 'There are so many things I wasn't proud of.' But I told him, 'You should get the medals. You fought for the country and your family, and you should pass the medals on.' "
Postiglione said he told his father-in-law that the family had to get involved.
"I don't want history to pass him by with nobody knowing what he did," Postiglione said. "I'm really proud of him."
John Gagliardi wasn't sure how to get the medals and sought help from retired Marine Lt. Col. Al Bancroft, director of military affairs for Camden County. The medals arrived from the Defense Department shortly before Thanksgiving.
"The ones who don't say anything, they are the true heroes. They go on with life and don't think about it," said Bancroft, a Vietnam veteran, who came to the event last night in uniform.
"Veterans don't like to be called heroes. But [Frank Gagliardi] was a hero. I wouldn't do this unless my heart was in it."
Gagliardi arrived in France about two weeks after the D-Day landing at Normandy and immediately went into combat.
He remembers taking cover in a cemetery just before the Allied breakthrough at Saint-Lô in the summer of 1944. The Germans fired artillery bursts over their heads, raining shrapnel down from the sky.
"I thought it was a good place to hide. It wasn't," Gagliardi said. "I got a piece of shrapnel in my eye and had a concussion."
He kept going after first aid, only to run into another firefight. He was in a ravine with his head bowed when a German bullet penetrated his steel helmet and scraped across his scalp.
Gagliardi received first aid again and continued with his unit.
As the weather got colder in the winter, he came down with pneumonia and suffered a fever that nearly killed him. He was taken from the front to a hospital.
"They put me in ice," he said. "I still don't know what happened, but I soon felt better and dismissed myself. I walked out of the hospital and hitched my way back to my outfit at the front lines."
Gagliardi said his unit was set to relieve the American troops encircled by German forces at Bastogne in what history would later call the Battle of the Bulge.
"It was tough at Bastogne," he said. "There were a lot of casualties. I lost friends."
By the war's end, Gagliardi had fought in five campaigns: Normandy, Northern France, Rhineland, Ardennes and Central Europe.
He came home with a bad case of "battle fatigue," he said, and forgot about the medals. Somehow, they didn't seem important.
Processing his war experiences "took a long time to straighten out," Frank Gagliardi said.
He eventually worked as an engineer at Westinghouse, and returned to the childhood home where he still lives.
"People say, 'War is hell.' It's also brutal and barbaric," Gagliardi said. "I was 18 back then . . . and we did the job."