Wolves on the Battlefield
I'll admit: I was nervous. How do you talk to a 107--year--old man?
And I'll admit: After that day — July 19, 2003 — I interviewed dozens more World War I veterans, men and women ranging in age from 101 to 113 years old, and every single time I was nervous beforehand. But never as nervous as I was that first time.
I had never met anyone that old before. I didn't even know anyone who had. I had no idea what to expect.
Well, that's not quite true; I had a few ideas, all of which turned out to be wrong. For instance, for some reason I thought a 107--year--old man would live in a 107--year--old house filled with 107--year--old things. But that day, as I turned onto Anthony Pierro's street in Swampscott, Massachusetts — a North Shore suburb of Boston — I could see right away that there weren't any houses there even half that old. And his was downright modern. Strange, I mused: A man could be born in 1896 and yet live in a house with central heat and air conditioning, high--definition satellite television, and broadband Internet access.
"His" house was really his nephew Rick's. Rick Pierro's father, Nicholas, was Anthony's baby brother. Nicholas was ninety--four.
I didn't even know what a 107--year--old man might look like. In my mind I tried to add twenty--five years to the octogenarians I knew already, but I just couldn't summon up such an image. The octogenarians I knew were spry and sharp, for the most part, but they also looked pretty old. Maybe they'd lived too hard and breathed in too much dirty Manhattan air, but I didn't think any of their bodies could take on another quarter--century without crumbling to dust.
Yet here was a man who could have been their father. I ran through a history--buff exercise in my head: Born in 1896. In 1896, Grover Cleveland was president. William Jennings Bryan ran to succeed him. Utah was admitted to the Union as the forty--fifth state. The Wright brothers were still tinkering around with bicycles. George Burns was born. The tallest building in the world was eighteen stories high.
I had carried on like this right up until I pulled onto the street and took notice of the modern houses.
Rick Pierro answered the door, shook my hand, and led me into the living room, where another man sat upright, dozing on the couch; completely bald, he wore a bright green golf shirt under a dark blue cardigan sweater. Tortoiseshell eyeglasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Rick walked over to him, placed his hand gently on the man's shoulder, and leaned over to his ear. "Uncle!" he said loudly, rubbing the sleeping man's shoulder. "Uncle! This man's here to see you!"
The man opened his eyes, waited a moment for them to come into focus, looked at his nephew, then at me, then at his nephew again. "What?" he asked.
"This man came all the way here from New York to see you!"
Anthony Pierro looked at me again and smiled faintly. He looked about twenty--five years younger than I knew he was. "Hello," he said, nodding his head, the same head that, in the distant past, he had tucked under his arms during a particularly severe artillery barrage, so that he might survive the day, and the war, and another eighty--five years. When the French government was handing out all those Légions d'Honneur in 1998 and 1999, somehow they missed Anthony Pierro. Actually, the oversight was his; the French invited American World War I veterans to apply for the award, and while they did everything they could to get the word out, working with both government agencies and private organizations, the ultimate responsibility rested upon the veterans themselves. They had to apply for it, had to prove that they had served on French soil before the armistice and that they had not acquired a criminal record since then. Anthony Pierro certainly qualified, yet for some reason he hadn't applied.
But in early 2003, someone at a local veterans' organization discovered the oversight and contacted the French Embassy, which hadn't awarded any World War I Légions d'Honneur in a few years and hadn't expected to award any more. Delighted, the embassy dispatched an attaché up to Swampscott, staged a little ceremony, and presented France's premier honor to a man who was one of the last living participants in what is arguably the worst thing that has ever happened there. A reporter wrote the affair up for a local weekly newspaper; a couple of months later, I came upon this article and hurriedly reached for the telephone. In several years of interviewing extremely old men and women, my routine scarcely changed. I would show up at the subject's home or apartment or room and introduce myself to them and their child or grandchild or niece or nephew or old family friend or caregiver. Immediately after that, I would start setting up, a process that involved figuring out where the subject and I would sit; opening as many blinds, and turning on as many lights, as possible; unfolding and positioning a tripod; and fixing a mini DV camcorder to it. (For the first half--dozen or so interviews, until I came to trust my camcorder, I also set up a regular analog tape recorder, complete with two handheld microphones, and ran it simultaneously.) When everything was in place, I sat down, pressed the record button, announced the date and the location, and, every single time, started with the same question.
"What's your name?"
"My name?" this particular107--year--old man said in response. "Well, it's a simple name: Anthony Pierro." He spoke these last two words with strength and clarity and pride, stressing every syllable of his surname equally. I laughed softly, in wonder at the whole thing.
"Where were you born?" I asked.
"I was born in Italy," he said. "Forenza, Provincia di Potenza."
"And what day were you born?"
"Ahh," he said, shaking his head in exasperation. "Doggone if I can remember."
"February fifteen," his nephew called out. "Eighteen ninety--six."
"Eighteen ninety--six?" I said.
"That's what he says," Anthony Pierro replied. "He knows more than I do." One thing you quickly learn in doing this kind of research is that for most of human history, record keeping has been neither an art nor a science but merely something that most people didn't want to be bothered with. We assume, for instance, that for every living person — or at least, for every living person in an industrialized country — there is a birth certificate. This, however, is not true, and in 1896 it was quite far from true. Back then, there was no centralized, standard method of recording births; how your birth was recorded — if it was recorded at all — was determined by where you lived, who your parents were, and quite possibly what church they attended. The state of Louisiana, for example, didn't start keeping birth records — or, for that matter, death records — until 1918; and since very few towns or parishes in Louisiana recorded them, either, if you want to find or confirm a specific date of birth for someone born in Louisiana before 1918, your best bet would be to hope that they were a baptized Catholic, since Catholic churches in Louisiana typically (though not always) listed a date of birth on their certificates of baptism, and typically (though not always) kept a copy of those certificates for their records. Of course, sometimes those churches moved and in the process misplaced or lost or discarded their old records, and sometimes those churches and everything in them burned to the ground or washed away in floods or just crumbled with age. And sometimes those certificates didn't get lost or tossed out or burned up but simply fell apart or faded over the decades to the point where they appeared to be merely blank pages.
In 1896, few of the nation's forty--five states — very few — recorded all births within their borders. If you weren't in one of them, maybe your county or your city or town did, though probably not; and maybe your church did somewhere, though again, the odds are against it. Maybe your parents recorded it in the family Bible, if they had one. If they didn't, and if their church or town or county or state didn't record it, either, well, then, everyone just did their best to remember what day of what month of what year you were born on, at least until they could tell you and you could assume the burden of remembering for yourself. I like to think that they (and you) usually did a pretty good job, although sometimes one has to wonder. When I was a child, I believed, as did everyone else in my family, that my paternal grandmother had been born in Stamford, Connecticut, on December 23, 1899. But after she died, in 1990, someone managed to dig up a birth certificate — apparently Stamford, Connecticut, did keep these records back then — and we discovered, to our astonishment, that she was actually born in 1898. On December 26.
In other words: It's all a mess. And Italy certainly wasn't any better in 1896, at least not as far as record keeping is concerned. So it's understandable that Anthony Pierro might be confused about his own birthday. His brother and nephew believed he was born on February 15, 1896. Other researchers have claimed it was February 12, or 17, or 22 of that year. No one, though, disputes that he was born Antonio Pierro in Forenza, Italy, in February, 1896.
Italy had only become a unified nation in 1873; though it had a glorious distant past, in 1896 it was, like the United States, a largely rural, agricultural country with pronounced regional divisions. It was a center of the arts, of course; the same month that Antonio Pierro was born in Forenza, Giacomo Puccini premiered his grand opera La Bohème at the Teatro Regio in Turin. But Turin was a different Italy than Forenza. It was industrial, cosmopolitan, rich. In Italy, it was the exception. Forenza — rural, agricultural, poor — was the rule. It was also, like thousands of other poor towns throughout Italy and the rest of southern and eastern Europe, increasingly sending its own off to America. One of them was Antonio Pierro's father, Rocco. Or, as his son always said the name, even when he was well over a century old: "Rrrrocco!"
Like most people in Forenza, Rocco Pierro worked the land, but it was a hard living, and at some point, most likely after his son Antonio was born, he discovered that he could earn more for himself and his family by working someone else's land, if he were willing to travel — to America. Which he did. As his sons and grandson explained it to me more than a century later, Rocco Pierro came to Massachusetts and found work as a landscaper for affluent Yankee families in Swampscott. I say "came to Massachusetts" rather than "immigrated" because he didn't immigrate, not really — at least not until decades after he first arrived. Many immigrants back then came to America not to stay forever but to work good jobs, save their pay, and ultimately return home with a healthy bankroll. Rocco Pierro did, too — except, unlike most, he did it every year. As Rick Pierro explained it to me, once a year his grandfather would leave Swampscott, return to his wife and children in Forenza, tend to his affairs there, and, after a certain amount of time — typically a month or so — depart once again for Swampscott, leaving behind those same children and that same wife, who was invariably, at the end of one of those annual visits, pregnant. "Between children," his son Anthony recalled, "having children, you know, he used to come here. Load up with all kinds of money that he had earned. And he'd come back. When that money was gone, he'd come back here again. Honestly, he was back and forth, back and forth. Every child. Between children."
No one's sure exactly when Rocco Pierro started his annual transatlantic commute, but in 1914, Antonio, now eighteen, made the trip with his father and, not having started a family of his own yet, stayed. As it happened, his timing was good: While he was getting settled in to America, Europe was collapsing into the biggest war it had ever seen. Italy managed to stay out of it for eight months or so, until the Allies lured the Italians into it by promising them several Austro--Hungarian provinces once that old empire was defeated and dismantled. There was a good bit of fighting in Italy — at one point, the Austrians made it almost to Venice — but it never got close to Forenza. And it never got close to Antonio Pierro, safely across the ocean, mowing lawns and pruning shrubs in Swampscott.
Until, that is, America entered the war and decided that, though he'd only been there a few years and wasn't yet a citizen, they needed him anyway. They made it easy for him, too; he didn't even have to make a trip down to the local recruiter's office. "I didn't have to do anything," he told me. "They just drafted me in." He was twenty--one years old, the minimum age for Selective Service in 1917.
He was sent to boot camp at Camp Gordon, in Georgia, where he learned to play checkers and was assigned to an artillery unit. Someone discovered that he was good with horses; in Italy, he recalled, "I loved the horses. Whenever I had a chance I'd take a horse and go to the public forest and get a load of wood for the people." So they made him an orderly to a lieutenant; many artillery units had been recently converted from old cavalry units, and officers were still mounted. As an orderly, Private Pierro was responsible for taking care of the lieutenant's horse. They gave him a horse, too, so he could keep up. He liked the work. "I used to mount the horse like a monkey," he said with a chuckle. "I used to hop on a horse, no problem at all. Right from the ground up."
Horses run through just about all of Anthony Pierro's memories of the war. If you ever need a quick way to remind yourself how long ago the First World War happened, and how much the world has changed since then, think of this: There were still horses everywhere, carrying scouts, towing heavy artillery from place to place, pulling supply wagons. By the next big war they were all but gone. (The Polish cavalry famously squared off against the mechanized Nazi Wehrmach in the opening hours of that war; it did not fare well.) But in World War I, horses were essential. And they weren't sheltered, either, kept far behind the lines and consigned to light work. They were in the thick of it, often getting killed — and even, occasionally, doing the killing. "Some of them were wild," Anthony Pierro recalled. "And the city kids, they didn't know anything about a horse or anything. No, they couldn't even mount a horse. They had to crawl up there like a cat." This is not a good way to approach a horse, especially one that has already been rendered skittish by a steady diet of bursting shells. "[If] he can't see you, or who it is — he'll kick you." One city kid in Private Pierro's unit learned this lesson too late. "He goes and puts his hands on the back part of the horse," Mr. Pierro recalled. "The horse didn't see him in the front, so, woo, he killed him. So, whenever you want to caress a horse, you go at the neck and then stay there. Yeah, animals are — I learned a lesson."
Much more typically, though, horses were the casualties. A boat full of them, part of the convoy that carried Private Pierro and thousands of other American soldiers across the Atlantic, was sunk by a bomb--dropping German airplane (or "aeroplane," as flying machines were then called) as it approached the French coast. (It was, apparently, a very large convoy: "A whole division went [over] together," he recalled. "It looked like a village.") And one time, in France, when he was walking up a road behind a horse, an H.E. (high explosive) shell came screaming in and burst in front of them; the horse was killed, but its body shielded Private Pierro from the explosion and shrapnel, saving his life. "Oh, well," he told me, "the horses, they got killed, yeah. But the only thing that we could do is dig a trench and bury them. Because leaving them outside, they would have had wolves eating it up." Yes: wolves on the battlefield.
Mr. Pierro didn't just tend to horses in France. "I was a driver," he told me. "I rode a horse attached to the carriage, to take the supply around." What he didn't tell me was that he would ride up to the front lines with a wagon loaded with supplies, drop them off with the troops, and ride back with another load: the bodies of slain infantrymen. I learned that part of the story much later, by which time I was no longer surprised that someone might leave it out in the retelling. Some memories, I had since learned, don't grow easier to recount even with the passage of eighty--five years.
In fact, though his nephew later confirmed that his uncle had, indeed, told him in the past that he had often carried bodies back from the front lines, when I spoke to Anthony Pierro in 2003, he remembered it differently. "We didn't take no bodies," he told me. "We buried them in the — at the front line. Wherever they died, that's where we dug a hole and buried his body. Yeah. And the — the cross would be in the cemetery, but the body would be where he died." However he remembered it, disposing of dead bodies was a regular event.
And there were a lot of them. In World War I, artillery was responsible for more deaths than anything else, more than bullets and bayonets, more than tanks and aeroplanes, more than poison gas and barbed wire. Naturally, this made artillery units on both sides a favorite target of the enemy, and Private Pierro frequently found himself under fire. "The shells used to come pretty often," he said. "That's terrific. Shells are coming your way, and you don't know where to duck." Fortunately, soldiers would often be alerted that a barrage was about to begin by the sight of an enemy aeroplane overhead. "They'd send a plane to locate the enemy's [position] . . . and that's how they got the distance to shoot . . . oh, they'd kill quite a few soldiers."
The sound of an aeroplane overhead may have filled doughboys with dread, but at least it served as a warning to take cover, as did the noise the shells made when they were coming in. "They used to make a whistle when the shell was flying," Mr. Pierro recalled, and whistled himself to mimic the sound. "They went weeeeeee, ba--BOOM! when it hit the ground and exploded." It was such a regular event that some soldiers developed their own routines in response.
"I had one tree — I used to duck underneath that tree," Mr. Pierro told me. And one day, like that unfortunate horse, this tree saved his life. "I was lucky," he said. "I was ducking underneath a tree. It got hit. But it didn't — the shell didn't explode." He turned his gaze toward the ceiling and said, in the voice of a twenty--two--year--old private: "Oh, boy. Thank you, God."
The incoming shell had gotten caught in the tree's branches; if it had hit the trunk, or passed through and hit the ground below, it would have killed him. But it didn't. "That's what saved me," he told me. "It was a tree. The shell landed in the tree. And it didn't explode."
Private Pierro knew how lucky he was; he immediately ran to find his captain, hunkering down in a dugout, and told him the story. The captain just looked at Private Pierro and said: "Bring it over."
It: the unexploded shell. Anthony Pierro couldn't believe what he was hearing, but an order is an order. "So I brung it over," he recalled. He ran back to that tree, climbed up, retrieved the unexploded shell, and carried it — "oh, boy, nice and easy; if the thing went off, I wouldn't be here, telling you" — to the captain's dugout.
The captain, seeing the private return to the dugout carrying a live shell, must have been just as stunned as the private had been when the captain had ordered him to fetch it from the tree; perhaps the order had merely been a joke that was just a shade too subtle. "Here's the shell," Pierro said to the wide--eyed captain. The captain's response, he recalled, was to cry: "Get it out of here! Take it away from here!"
"Where do you want to put it?" the private asked.
"Just lay it down there!" the captain replied, pointing at a spot far away.
And eighty--five years later, the private added: "Oh, boy."
And this coda: "You know, a foolish thing to do. Pick it up from the tree where it was stuck."
Excerpted from The Last of the Doughboys by Richard Rubin Copyright 2013 by Richard Rubin. Excerpted by permission.
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