A few last living words from World War I

The Seattle author of a new book on immigrant soldiers in The Great War describes a meeting with a 110-year-old survivor of all that rain and misery and death.
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Italian-born Doughboy Tony Pierro, 1918

The Seattle author of a new book on immigrant soldiers in The Great War describes a meeting with a 110-year-old survivor of all that rain and misery and death.

Here in Seattle Veterans Day coincides with the height of the rainy season, which seems fitting given the wretched weather that the soldiers endured in France in the weeks leading up to the 1918 Armistice that Veterans Day commemorates.

'ꀜDuring the night, a cold penetrating rain began,'ꀝ one soldier wrote of conditions on the first day of the Argonne offensive that ended the Great War. 'ꀜWe couldn'ꀙt build any fires. We had no overcoats, and had left our blanket rolls in the Bois de Sivry. Some found overcoats and blankets left by the Boche, and rolled up in those. The army slicker is as good as nothing, as far as heat goes, and as to turning water — well, we who wore them in the Argonne, knew what they were worth. The moisture from one'ꀙs body collects on the inside of the coat, and as soon as the wind strikes you, you are cold for the rest of the day.'ꀝ

Such was life in France in the fall of 1918. The rain and wind outside my window seem blessedly benign by comparison. But I really wasn'ꀙt intending to devote this blog item to the weather but rather to the back story of one of the 12 immigrant soldiers featured in my new book, The Long Way Home. When I started researching in earnest in the summer of 2006, two foreign-born World War I veterans were still, miraculously, alive — 106-year-old Sam Goldberg and 110-year-old Antonio Pierro. Naturally, I wanted to meet both of them as soon as possible.

I don'ꀙt recall exactly how I tracked down Tony Pierro, but I do remember that a radio producer named Will Everett was extremely helpful in the process. At the time, Will was taping interviews with the surviving World War I veterans for a radio program called The World War I Living History Project that he was putting together, and he had just spent a long, productive, if sometimes frustrating day taping an interview with Tony at the Pierro residence in Swampscott, Mass.

I have learned over years of research and writing that some people jealously guard everything they know about a subject, while others share freely, even with perfect strangers. Will was one of the latter. When I called to pick his brain, he told me that the best way to set up an interview with Tony was to contact his nephew Rick, he advised me to use a loud clear voice in asking questions, and he warned me that I shouldn'ꀙt expect too many combat stories — after all the guy was 110. Will added that my best chance of getting Tony to talk freely was to bring a pretty young girl along to the interview.

This last bit of advice amused me — 110 and still an eye for the ladies! But Will was insistent so I pressed my oldest daughter Emily, who fits the bill nicely, into service. I can'ꀙt say that Tony opened up much. He seemed to be dwelling peacefully deep inside himself and far back in the past. But, with Emily sitting beside him and intercepting the occasional shy courtly smile, Tony talked some about the snakes in his family'ꀙs vineyard back in Forenza in the south of Italy, the dangers of dodging exploding shells in combat, and a French girl named Magdalena he had loved nine decades ago. When we got up to leave, Tony took Emily'ꀙs 21-year-old hand in his 110-year-old hand, leaned over and kissed it.

I listened to Will'ꀙs documentary on Veterans Day, 2006, and was blown away. Walter Cronkite hosts the program, and Will'ꀙs interviews with the dozen centenarian veterans are absorbing, surprising, and moving beyond words.

It never occurred to me when I set out to write The Long Way Home that I would be able to interview two veterans who had served when Woodrow Wilson was commander in chief. It saddened me that both men died before my book was finished, Sam Goldberg on December 10, 2006, and Tony Pierro on February 8, 2007. In fact, of the 12 men Will interviewed for his documentary, only one is still alive: Frank Buckles of Charles Town, West Virginia, is the last of the last. Even wonderful old Walter Cronkite passed away this past July.

If you'ꀙd like to hear the voices of these veterans and share in their memories, I urge you to get hold of a copy of Will Everett'ꀙs brilliant program. I'ꀙd like to thank again Will and Rick Pierro for their help. And I want to acknowledge Tony Pierro and the 4.3 million other Americans, half a million of them foreign-born, who served in the Great War that ended 91 years ago.


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