06/22/2014 10:42 EDT | Updated 08/22/2014 05:59 EDT

Canadians honoured for WW II rescue of Italian boy

All this week, in Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto, ceremonies have been held and tributes paid to a little known chapter in Canada’s Second World War history. The guest of honour at each of these events was only a child when fighting raged across Europe.

Gino Farnetti-Bragaglia travelled all the way from his native Italy to honour a group of Canadian soldiers who saved his life when he was just five years old.

In June of 1944, as the First Canadian Division advanced up the Italian peninsula, fighting pitched battles against a staunch German resistance, soldiers from the Royal Canadian Army Service Corps — a transport unit — discovered a small boy, hungry and filthy, cowering amid wreckage and rubble near the village of Torrice. The boy’s father was dead. His mother was nowhere to be found. With no one to care for the youngster, the Canadians took him in.

Farnetti-Bragaglia meets families

The soldiers looked after the boy for nine months. They gave him his own uniform and taught him English. They found a bicycle and had him ferry messages around their camp. Farnetti-Bragaglia, who is now 76, came to Canada to honour the men he calls his guardian angels; the Canadians who saved his life.

“What I remember is the care and the love they immediately had for me as soon as they found me,” Farnetti-Bragaglia said, speaking through an interpreter.

Farnetti-Bragaglia says his heart races when he thinks of the men who helped him and he wishes he could see them again. The four soldiers were Mert Massey, Paul Hagen, Doug Walker and Lloyd (Red) Oliver. All of them survived the war but have since passed away. Families of the men met with Farnetti-Bragaglia at a dinner in Toronto this week and shared their memories.

“To come from a little boy in a shell hole to the life that he made for himself is just incredible,” said Oliver’s son Dennis.

When the Canadians shipped out of Italy bound for Western Europe, young Gino was adopted by an Italian family and took on their name, Farnetti. He grew up to become an engineer, husband and father but knew almost nothing about his birth family.

'It’s a great example of humanity'

That changed only recently when an Italian author, Mariangella Rondinelli, published a book in Italy chronicling Gino’s story. Researchers were able to track down a baptismal certificate in the town of Torrice where he was found during the war. It showed his family name was Bragaglia.

Gino’s story was picked up by Italian media and made its way back to Canada. Claudia Bragaglia, of Montreal, started getting phone calls from family in Italy in 2012 telling her a long lost relative had been found. This month, she met her Great Uncle Gino for the first time when he visited Montreal.

“We were very emotional. We were very happy,” she said.

“But I think we were all a bit sad also to think that we had never gotten a chance to meet him. I mean, this is a seventy-six year old man. So, we’re trying to catch up.”

For Farnetti-Bragaglia, it has been a remarkable journey. Even today, seventy-years after his fateful encounter with the four Canadians, he becomes emotional when recounting his story; referring to the men who rescued him as brothers.

The author Mariangella Rondinelli says the Canadians showed compassion amid the carnage of war.

“A little, tiny boy reminded them of their little brothers at home, of their little sons at home,” she said.

“It’s a great example of humanity.”