ALTAMONT, N.Y. (NEWS10) – A hometown hero from Altamont was a prisoner of war for three years, and a makeshift American flag is what kept him alive.
Stepping into the Home Front Café in Altamont feels like stepping back in time. Part restaurant, part museum, it’s a place where American history is preserved and heroes never die.
Owner Cindy Pollard knows there’s more to food service than the Truman Burger she serves up daily.
“I’m still inspired by the people I meet who come from these doors,” she said. “Not just the veterans but everyone. And it’s made me realize that everyone has a story.”
One of those stories belongs to Millard Orsini, a war hero who grew up in Altamont.
“Altamont is Orsini,” his granddaughter Cherryl Harrington said.
“I knew the whole family,” his friend Steve Oliver said. “You couldn’t throw a stone around here without hitting an Orsini. Still can’t.”
In 1942, Orsini was overseas – weak, captured by the enemy and forced to walk as a prisoner in the Bataan Death March.
“When you see stories on TV and watch what happened, you couldn’t believe that he actually participated in that,” his daughter Terri Cuomo said.
Ten thousand men died in the March, but Orsini survived and was transferred to a Japanese prison.
“You know, the one thing when you’re trained and if you get captured, it’s a mental game; it’s a mind game. They’re gonna break your spirit. They’re gonna break your heart,” Tony Ferraioli, former commander of Altamont VFW, said.
But strong and silent, Orsini could not be broken. He passed the time in his cell by constructing a makeshift flag by supposedly using a window shade for the body and stolen inks from the laundry for paint.
He hid that flag under the floorboards at night, and his friends and family said making it kept him alive.
“To think that he could’ve been killed,” Cuomo said. “Obviously, if they had found it they would have at least beat him if not killed him.”
“How do you make the best of digging coal for the enemy and doing the things and being beat and tortured?” American Legion Commander Jim Gaige said. “That was his salvation. That’s what made him want to survive.”
The flag was his salvation.
“Once they were liberated, he went in and he got that out of the floorboards and ran out and held it up because there were planes flying over and he wanted them to see that there were Americans there,” Cuomo said.
Orsini brought the flag home from war. It has outlived him and is displayed on the wall of the Home Front Café where his friends and family honor his memory every day.
“It means the world to me,” Gaige said. “I mean, I bring people here to eat, and the first thing I do is show them that flag.”
“Him making that flag was defiance,” Oliver said. “Like, no I came to fight for this flag. I’m gonna make one, and if I gotta die, I’m gonna die with one.”
“And what does the flag say to me?” Pollard asked. “I’m worth fighting for. I’m worth dying for but live for me. And that’s exactly what Millard did.”