The Human Side of Genealogy

A Family Farewell to Arms


"The weak envied those tired enough to die; for success looked so remote, and failure a near and certain, if sharp, release from toil. We lived always in the stretch or sag of nerves, either on the crest or in the trough of waves of feeling…. When emotion reached this pitch, the mind choked; and memory went white until the circumstances were humdrum once more." Thus Lawrence of Arabia described how it felt to fight in World War One.

Calling the outbreak of this war "the greatest error of modern history," British historian Niall Ferguson's The Pity of War pitilessly details what Ferguson considers to be the multiple gross blunders of European diplomats and statesmen. Among them, Ferguson includes Britain's overestimation of Kaiser Wilheim's real menace to her security. In its catalog of folly and waste, the book evokes the ghosts of Ferguson's two grandfathers, both of whom served. Paging through this voluminous revisionist history, I caught myself wondering about my own grandfathers, John Spaltro and Louis Salvucci, and if they had served in World War One.

And if so, how did they escape the inferno? Italian soldiers' deaths in World War One amounted to 578,000, American deaths in 1917-18 to 114,000, and British deaths to an incredible 723,000, twice as many as in the supposedly more savage World War Two. An estimated 9.5 million soldiers died on both sides.

For both of them, this question had already arisen when I examined their naturalization records. My father had mailed to me John Spaltro's naturalization certificate as an extra document when he sent his father's U.S. Army discharge papers. If he had not put the two documents together in the envelope, I might not have realized that John Spaltro's U.S. Army service intertwined with his becoming an American citizen. I had assumed that he was an American citizen when he became an American soldier. Instead, he became a soldier in order to become a citizen, one of many immigrants who found enlistment a speedier form of naturalization.

His honorable discharge papers note that he served as a mechanic after his enlistment on 26 August 1918 in Philadelphia. A now-quaint detail preserves the fact that he was not a mounted horseman in the U.S. Army. He saw no action and received no battle wounds. The Army discharged him at Camp Lee, VA on 10 January 1919.

When I turned from his Army discharge papers to his naturalization certificate, I was startled to see that Prince George County Circuit Court in Virginia naturalized him on 20 September 1918, three weeks after his enlistment. He resided at Camp Lee at the time of the court's action.

I also noticed that he had enlisted on his 28th birthday. He struck me as a bit old to enlist. Now realizing that he may have wanted to circumvent the long waiting period before complete naturalization, I wondered how long before his enlistment he had arrived in the United States.

Perhaps he had even served in the Italian armed forces during World War One (as the war had almost ended when he enlisted in Philadelphia). I know he was born in Potenza, Italy, a large town in the poorest section of Italy, mountainous, isolated Basilicata, not because I have a birth certificate, but because his U.S. Army discharge papers note the fact.

John Spaltro remains an elusive ghost, not least because of his early death, at 42, of pneumonia. Seeking more data, I wrote to the circuit court for his Declaration of Intent and Petition for Naturalization and to the National Personnel Records Center, Military Personnel Records, in St. Louis for his Report of Separation, but I have received no answer after many months.

I hope to find an Italian birth certificate by writing to Potenza or Italian Army discharge papers by asking the proper authority. Some of my family members speculate that he died of pneumonia in 1932 because poison gas had weakened his lungs. Clearly, such an experience would not have arisen during his sojourn at Camp Lee, VA, but maybe he did see action in Europe as a younger soldier.

My maternal grandfather, Louis Salvucci, it seems, never served in the armed forces of either Italy or the United States. In fact, I wonder whether he emigrated in May 1914 at the age of 15, not only to join some of his 16 siblings in the United States, but also to avoid conscription. I do not know much about Italy's role in World War One, except that she joined France and Britain about a year after Lou left San Donato (in the province of Frosinone, near Monte Cassino) for New York City, so I am not sure about whether he would have been vulnerable to conscription had he remained.

I used to put together Memorial Day services for a local church and twice read excerpts from Vera Brittain's memoir of World War One, Testament of Youth. Writing of her lost lover and brother and friends, she remembered feeling on the first Armistice Day. "All those with whom I had really been intimate were gone; not one remained to share with me the heights and depths of my memories. As the years went by and youth departed and remembrance grew dim, a deeper and ever deeper darkness would cover the young men who were once my contemporaries ... everything that had hitherto made up my life had vanished with Edward and Roland, with Victor and Geoffrey ... the dead were dead and would never return."

Having paged through Ferguson's appalling account of politicians' blundering into World War One, knowing that the political hatreds they fostered bred a second evil a mere twenty years later, I can only grieve over the meaningless sacrifice paid by so many. I find much comfort in the fact that both my grandfathers apparently escaped the worst of it.

<< Human Side of Genealogy

What's New in Genealogy ... Today!
click to view original photo