Michael Aufiero in his Shrewsbury workshop. Below, the frame of his display case for the replica of the U.S.S. Houston being readied for shipment to the Navy Museum. (Photo above by Dan Natale; others courtesy of Michael Aufiero. Click to enlarge)
By DAN NATALE and JOHN T. WARD
Shrewsbury’s Michael Aufiero was balancing two careers – restaurateur and woodworker – a few years back when his lifelong best friend, Johnny Schwarz, called him with a request.
Schwarz heads up a World War II veterans’ organization, the U.S.S. Houston (CA-30) Survivors Association, founded by his late father. He was overseeing the refurbishment of the original scale-replica of the ship, a heavy cruiser that was sunk by the Japanese in the early days of World War II. The replica would be donated to the the National Museum for the United States Navy in Washington. It needed a display case. Would Aufiero build it?
Aufiero, who owns Red Bank’s Front Street Trattoria with his wife, Valerie, was reluctant to take on the task. His wood shop was about mantelpieces and wall units for home entertainment systems, not something as freighted with meaning as this.
But Aufiero had known Otto Schwarz, and knew his story: how he had survived 20 hours in the sea as the Japanese machine-gunned the water; his three-and-a-half-year ordeal in a prison-of-war camp in Burma as a member of the slave labor contingent depicted in “The Bridge on the River Kwai;” the horrific beatings he endured in a camp in Saigon.
Aufiero felt an obligation to honor both Schwarz and the sailors who had served with him.
“There’s not a lot of men I look up to in my life,” Aufiero said. “He was one of them.”