In 2003, 85 years after the armistice, it took Richard Rubin months to find just one living American veteran of World War I. But then, he found another. And another. Eventually he managed to find dozens, aged 101 to 113, and interview them. All are gone now.
A decade-long odyssey to recover the story of a forgotten generation and their Great War led Rubin across the United States and France, through archives, private collections, and battlefields, literature, propaganda, and even music. But at the center of it all were the last of the last, the men and women he met: a new immigrant, drafted and sent to France, whose life was saved by a horse; a Connecticut Yankee who volunteered and fought in every major American battle; a Cajun artilleryman nearly killed by a German aeroplane; an 18-year-old Bronx girl “drafted” to work for the War Department; a machine-gunner from Montana; a Marine wounded at Belleau Wood; the 16-year-old who became America’s last WWI veteran; and many, many more.
They were the final survivors of the millions who made up the American Expeditionary Forces, nineteenth-century men and women living in the twenty-first century. Self-reliant, humble, and stoic, they kept their stories to themselves for a lifetime, then shared them at the last possible moment, so that they, and the World War they won – the trauma that created our modern world – might at last be remembered. You will never forget them. The Last of the Doughboys is more than simply a war story: It is a moving meditation on character, grace, aging, and memory.
|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
|Product dimensions:||6.40(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Richard Rubin is the author of Confederacy of Silence. He has written for the Atlantic, the New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and New York magazine. He lives in New York and Maine. Learn more about Richard Rubin at thelastofthedoughboys.com or follow him on twitter @LastDoughboys.
Read an Excerpt
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 many 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 turned to 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 particular 107-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 here 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 Wehrmacht 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.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Last of the Doughboys"
Copyright © 2013 Richard Rubin.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: No Man’s Land ix
1. Wolves on the Battlefield 1
2. Over the Top 15
3. The American Sector 35
4. Cheer and Laughter and Joyous Shout 72
5. The People Behind the Battle 94
6. The Forgotten Generation 111
7. Give a Little Credit to the Navy 123
8. A Vast Enterprise in Salesmanship 142
9. Hell, We Just Got Here 165
10. We Didn’t See a Thing 188
11. Loyal, True, Straight and Square 216
12. Old Dixieland in France 243
13. L’Ossuaire 285
14. A Wicked Gun, That Machine Gun 312
15. Wasn’t a Lot of Help 346
16. The Last Night of the War 389
17. The Last of the Last 424
18. We Are All Missing You Very Much 465
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
What an incredible book. Mr. Rubin painstakingly searched out the last remaining World War I veterans and documented their stories of service. These veterans were all over 100 years old when Mr. Rubin spokevwith them. The stories are presented with respect, warmth, and, in many cases, humor. An absolute gem of a book!
Until recently, I, like many, had not taken the time to learn about WWI. The knowledge about the war which followed 20 years later far exceded the interest and story telling associated with the Great War. But after reading this book I am very thankful that Mr. Rubin extended such a great effort to record the stories told by these last doughboys. The author artfully documented the doughboys' war experience never shying away from the emotions, the horrors, the brutality and the caring comradship. The stories were so personal one could not help but develop a tenderness toward each veteran and a sadness knowing each had shortly died. Thanks to Mr. Rubin for recognizing the value in finding these men and recording their experiences before they died. It is sad to think of all the stories which are forever lost.
It took me a while, but I read it thru. Very interesting and infoamative about WWI...most of which I have never read about.
I finished up Mr. Rubin's history of WW1 doughboys with a tear in my eyes last night. I didn't want it to end, as that would be saying goodbye to a new bunch of friends from another world, ones that I never would have known except through this book's 500 compelling pages of their histories. The author's brilliant idea at the beginning of the twenty-first century to locate and interview living Great War Veterans, most of whom were born near the end of the nineteenth century and served in France in the twentieth century. What? Needless to say, it was totally remarkable that they were still alive , all 100 years or more of age; that the author was able to locate and interview them around the country speaks to his dedication; that they were able to lucidly respond to his questions with chilling details attests to their determination to share a history almost lost to all of us. When I said it was a world "...I never would have known...." I wasn't completely honest." Two of my uncles were in that war and, although being born late in the late 1930s, I did get to meet both of them as a teenager and had heard some family stories of their service. One uncle came home without a scratch, the other having lost the use of his left leg and totally depended on crutches all his life for mobility. At the time, I loved and respected both uncles. But now, thanks to "The Last of the Doughboys," I have a deeper admiration for them and the many other doughboy heroes that I would never get to know. God bless them all. And, to Richard Rubin, a big Thank You for this fascinating war history.
“The Last of the Doughboys” is the result of Author Richard Rubin’s coast to coast quest to interview the last surviving American veterans of World War I. Spread over several years his interviews of dozens of men over the age of 100 is entertaining and edifying on several levels. The author makes use of many quotes in his narrative. Just the recognition that centenarians are different from other people as evidenced by the fact that they lived as long as they did and that they preserved dialects and vocabularies lost to younger generations is a point often made.. Their varied experiences from the training camps, transportation, front, trenches, and even stateside service fill in gaps not ordinarily neglected in histories of the war. Their later lives complete out their claim to being a pretty fair generation themselves. The veterans’ memories are supplemented by Rubin’s summaries of the “big stories”, the histories of the organization of the units, the delivery (The Navy Did Not Lose a Doughboy), the battles they fought and their return home. I am glad I selected “The Last of the Doughboys”. I learned a lot about the troops who carried the Stars and Stripes into the Great War. It provides a reminder to appreciate the elderly among us, and triggered a sense of remorse that I never asked my grandfather or uncles about their service, but Richard Rubin did not think of it until long after they were gone. I recommend it to any student of World War I, early 20th century America or anyone just looking for a good story
Rubin writes a wonderful book telling the stories of 100+ yaerold.veterns. He interspeses extra historical information throughtout the book, discussing a wide range of topics. An easy read
I have always been fascinated by the changes brought about with WWI. This was a wonderful first person conversational and historical approach. Well done!
Told by the hundred year plus Veterans of the war. Interesting concept. A very good read really enjoyed enjoyed it.
I heard about this book on the radio and thought it would be a good read. I just can't handle the detail of destruction and what they went through in the war.