From the World War I Centennial News Podcast
Remembering Veterans: Luca Angeli on Italian-born Doughboys
In May 17th's edition of the World War I Centennial News Podcast, Episode 123, host Theo Mayer spoke with Luca Angeli about his project commemorating Italian-born Doughboys who died fighting for the United States. A native of Italy, Mr. Angeli has spent time working in the United States, following in the footsteps of his great-grandfather. The following is a transcript of the conversation, lightly edited for clarity:
Theo Mayer: Because we're coming up on Memorial Day, we're focusing this week's segments on a series of stories that remember veterans. Our first segment looks at a group of immigrant soldiers that served in World War I. The New Colossus is a sonnet that American poet Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was cast into a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level. The most famous part of the sonnet reads:
Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, the tempest tossed to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.
America has always been a nation of immigrants, and so it was in 1917 when we entered World War I on the side of the Allies and constituted a draft to grow our military from a small standing army to a major fighting force. A huge number of immigrants were swept into national service. One such group were Italians, many of whom had recently come to America suddenly finding themselves returning to Europe in uniform as part of the US Army. Our next guest, Luca Angeli, has been curating this information including a section on the Commission's website called, "Back Over There: Italian Immigrants Serving in the US Army." Luca, welcome to the podcast.
Luca Angeli: Thank you Theo, thank you for having me here.
Theo Mayer: Luca, before we talk about the Italian immigrants and the website, tell us a little bit about yourself and why you took on this project.
Luca Angeli: Sure, there's a strong tie between my personal life and this project, since I myself spent 13 years in the United States. Although we cannot really compare the early 1900s with the 2000s, I have lived some of the dynamics of immigration and I have experienced an immigrant's life abroad. When I moved to Chicago, I wanted to learn more about my great-grandfather who had preceded me exactly 100 years before, spending three years in the mine fields of southern Colorado, and so I started to look into it and to check the resources available for retrieving information, for checking facts, etc, etc. When my great-grandfather got back to Italy and he lived World War I as a soldier in a foreign army. At that time, it was the Austrian-Hungarian army because my family comes from a part of Italy that saw the Austrian domination, so it was under the Austrian army. I started to be fascinated by the subject of the first world war lived through the eyes of common people in a foreign environment. My next step was to join a few World War I forums and I got in touch with people seeking information or relatives who had emigrated to the US and they had fought and died with the American army in France. But to add information on each one of them so that we can document somehow the experiences as civilian as well as soldier, remembering not only their death, but especially their lives and dreams. By doing that, I believe we fully understand the sacrifice and fully understand the value of social integration. This is basically why I took up this huge task.
Theo Mayer: But Luca, when you started to do the research to pull this information together, how do you compile the information? How many of these men did you find?
Luca Angeli: I did start looking into databases because it is virtually impossible to say how many served because the US assembled four million men- of which 25% or more were not born in America. I would say that a good estimate is 100,000 (Italians) served. On those I focused and I narrowed down to the ones that were born in Italy, so they were not first generation immigrants and they were all veterans. I excluded the veterans who made it back somehow from France. By doing that, I narrowed it down to 3,100 names and I was also able to retrieve around 550 portraits and it's an ongoing project. What happened is that the information after the war was actually collected in a good manner. The information was there but then we stumbled into some issues of communication between the War Department and the Italian government. It happens that all these names were not actually recorded and they did not surface in what is called the honor roll in Italy which has been done and was being compiled after the war by the Fascists. The American documentation gives four big databases that reveal a ton of information. One is the draft registry that has been mentioned in your intro. One is the service records that every state has accessible, some sort of form of service records. Some states issued something in the '20s, from which you can extract names, and recently the mission archives released all the burial papers of all casualties, all fallen soldiers that were buried in France and not transferred to their countries or the national cemeteries in the United States. If you take these four databases, they have a humongous number of records, but all of them they carry some different information that if you cross them with church records or if you cross them with some other immigration documents like the Ellis Island database, you can firmly identify who on these distorted names, misspelled names, fake names are real persons, real individuals that at one point decided to cross the ocean and were absolutely overwhelmed by the events, and they had to come back and fight with a foreign army and lost their lives.
Theo Mayer: When we talk to people who have done World War I projects, and we do all the time, there's always cases and persons or stories that stick out for them. Do you have any particular story that you can tell us about?
Luca Angeli: One that was really striking was this young man called Luigi Ciarullo, that he was just 20 years old from a little, tiny village called Ripacandida in southern Italy in the Portenza. I sat down with his family in Altoona in Pennsylvania in the mine fields. They came to the US in 1906 shortly after a tragedy, a family tragedy because his father murdered his mother. He found himself orphaned because his father claimed insanity, so he was not sentenced to death but he was sentenced to life in prison in Pittsburgh. He grew up with his aunt and when America joined the war, he went voluntarily in the Pennsylvania National Guard to serve over there and he lost his life in the second Battle of the Marne on the 15th of July, 1918 when a shell landed in a dugout where he was hiding with another six men. Of these six men, two were born in Italy. The thing that struck me was that he prepared a will just before leaving for France. In this will, he was just asking for a pardon for his father. When this became public, they just pardoned his father. It was kind of remarkable that even though he had lived such tragedy, his family values were really, really stuck deep into him. Every story is a life, every story has something to say. This project is trying really to give back some of these stories to make them emerge, to stress the importance of why they came to the United States and what happened to their lives and their dreams.
Theo Mayer: Luca, a last question for you. If one of our listeners has an Italian ancestor who fought in World War I, and they don't find them in the list, how can they contact you to give you the information?
Luca Angeli: They can contact me for the information but also my email is firstname.lastname@example.org. I have two websites, I did transpose one in Italian that is www.backoverthere.com, which is at the moment just in Italian. The Centennial Commission hosts the whole database, so the primary information is there in the Centennial Commission website and I can be contacted and I actually invite everyone who has some information or is seeking information on Italian-born veterans to contact me at email@example.com because this project can only thrive with the community effort.
Theo Mayer: That makes sense. Thank you Luca, both for coming and on the program and most of all, for all of the effort and the work that you're doing to put this information together for the Italian Doughboys, thank you.
Luca Angeli: Thank you.
Theo Mayer: Luca Angeli is the curator for "Back Over There: Italian Immigrants Serving in the US Army during World War I." You can find his site and database at ww1cc.org/backoverthere, all one word, all lower case. We have links for you in the podcast notes to the site on the commission server and Luca's Italian language site.