Friday, September 26, 2008

City Council creates Michael Valente Day

Salutes Long Beach’s lone Medal of Honor recipient

By Joseph Kellard

Nearly 90 years to the day after World War I veteran Michael Valente rescued his regiment from disaster in France, the Long Beach City Council on Tuesday voted unanimously to designate Sept. 29 as a day in his honor.

Valente, who died in 1976, is Long Beach’s lone recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor — the highest award for valor given to a member of the U.S. armed forces for actions against an enemy force — which the infantryman, then a private, earned for heroic acts on Sept. 29, 1918. Just 3,446 such medals have been awarded since its inception in 1863.

“In the City of Long Beach, we want every September 29 to be a day for people to reflect and honor the life and accomplishments of Michael Valente,” said City Manager Charles Theofan, who noted that the council heeded President Bush’s nationwide call to honor the memory of all recipients of the prestigious medal. “… This is the very least we can do to honor him.”

At a May council meeting, Al Symons, a retired engineer who worked for the Department of Defense, requested that the council designate Sept. 29 as Michael Valente Day, to honor Long Beach’s only recipient of the medal. Tuesday night, Symons read to the council a citation from President Herbert Hoover when he decorated Valente, then a retired sergeant, with the medal in Washington on Sept. 27, 1929.“It’s the proudest moment of my life,” Valente said, according to a New York Times account dated the day after.

Valente’s courageous acts came when his regiment, Company D of the 107th Infantry, was suffering heavy casualties during operations against German forces at the Hindenburg line near Ronssoy, France. Alongside a fellow soldier, Valente rushed forward through intense machine gun fire directly on an enemy nest, killing two gunners and capturing five enemy soldiers. Discovering another machine gun nest nearby that rained heavy fire on American forces, Valente and his companion charged it, killed the gunner, jumped into the enemy trench, killed two more soldiers and captured 16 others.

On Tuesday, Symons thanked the council for creating the day to honor Valente. “You have no idea how happy I am that you are taking this resolution at this time,” Symons said to the applause of the crowd. Among those in attendance were Valente’s great-granddaughter, Danna Cuneo-Wojcieski, who was born two years after he died at age 80 on Jan. 10, 1976. “I think it’s an amazing honor,” she told the Herald.

“He was obviously a courageous man in World War I, and we’re so proud that he’s part of our family.” Francesca Capitano, a former councilwoman, remembered growing up two house down from Valente on Walnut Street — before she married his grandson, Ralph Madalena.

“He was a great man, a kind man, a good father, a good grandfather,” she told the council with her husband and daughter, Katherine Madalena, at her side.

Valente emigrated from Italy to Ogdensburg, N.Y., in 1915, and joined the New York Guard. In May of 1918, he was deployed to France to fight on the front lines. After the war, he married Margareta Marchello and moved to her native Newark, N.J., before the couple settled in Long Beach around 1919, where they raised three children.

Valente became a contractor and real estate agent who built houses in Long Beach, but eventually gave up the business to work in City Hall as the city marshal. When he retired in the 1960s, he greeted people at La Serenata, a restaurant at the original Long Beach Library, now the site of Sutton Place.

Standing 6 feet tall with blond hair, blue eyes and a barrel chest, Valente was always active, particularly in his garden, and he rode his bike on the boardwalk regularly right up until his final years.

“My father was very proud, but he didn’t talk about it much,” Valente’s daughter, Lido Beach resident Josephine Cuneo, said of the Medal of Honor. “He was wonderful, kind and soft-spoken. Unless other people told us about the medal, we would never have known.”

Frank Cuneo, Valente’s grandson, said he could not recall his grandfather ever talking about the war or his medal. He said he believes that Valente’s legacy was never properly passed down, and he was satisfied that a Long Beach resident like Symons spearheaded an effort to create a day honoring his grandfather.

The Long Beach Public Library used to display a facsimile of Valente’s medal (Madalena has the original), and a portrait of Valente wearing it hangs in City Hall.

“I remember as a kid I used to march and ride in a car with him in the Memorial Day parade,” said Cuneo, who now lives in Manhattan. “Everyone would stop and greeted him. He was well known in town.”

The city named one of its senior apartments, near City Hall, after Valente, as did the Sons of Italy lodge he attended. Some of the lodge’s members attended the meeting to thank the council for recognizing him.

Before the council voted on the resolution, its members consulted with some local veterans’ organization to get their input. Valente was most active in the VFW Post in Long Beach. “I think it’s fabulous to have the day named after him,” said Scott Castillo, the VFW’s senior vice commander. “He’s the only Medal of Honor winner in Long Beach, and it brings all veterans recognition. I’m all for it.”

Joseph Kellard is a journalist and commentator living in New York. Contact him at

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