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On this Veterans Day, around 8 percent of active duty service members were born in another country. The top two countries of origin are Mexico and the Philippines.
But a century ago, the ratio was much higher. During World War I or "The Great War," 20 percent of U.S. military personnel were foreign-born.
One of them was Italian immigrant Antonio Pierro of Swampscott.
His story is remarkable.
Even at 110 years old, Tony Pierro was a lady's man. When author David Laskin interviewed Tony in 2006 for a book about WWI immigrants-turned-veterans, another researcher suggested that Laskin bring a young woman along.
"That would be the way to get Tony talking," Laskin remembered. "Which I thought was fantastic at 110, that that would still light up his eyes. So I brought my older daughter, who was young and pretty. And sure enough, Tony lit up when he saw her."
Tony took her 21-year-old hand in his 110-year-old hand, leaned over and kissed it.
"Which I thought was extremely courtly," Laskin said. "We’re talking about an old-school Italian gentleman."
Tony was born in the 19th century, in 1896, in a peasant village in the extreme south of Italy. Life consisted of scorching summers working in the fields. The dire poverty drove him, at the age of 16, to emigrate. In 1913 Tony reached Ellis Island, then set out for Swampscott, where his father and many other Italians were waiting for him.
His first job was basically working as a gardener, building stone walls and digging flower beds on a rich man’s estate in Swampscott.
"That’s not what Tony came to the New World to do," Laskin said. "This was somebody who wanted to have a car, wanted to live nicely. You know, wanted to get away from digging in the earth. I mean, that’s what they’d been doing in Italy."
However, the continent he left his soon changed his fortune. War broke out in Europe. And Tony made a fateful choice. The U.S. drafted him, but the Italian army wanted him, too. Author Laskin says even though Antonio Pierro had left Italy only four years before and could barely speak English, he chose to fight in the U.S. Army.
Tony joined the All-American Division with young men from every state. He and other foreign-born soldiers — mainly Italians, Jews and Poles — boarded the same steamer ships on which they’d come to America only a few years before, to sail back across the Atlantic to Europe.
Tony Pierro fought in France in the artillery. The heavy guns bombarded opposing trenches with shrapnel and poison gas. When the smoke cleared, the infantry charged the trenches. Around 1,000 Americans died each day.
"Tony definitely did his bit," Laskin said. "He had a horse and a cart. And his major job was to bring shell canisters to the front, and to bring bodies back."
Tony carried so many shells of poison gas against his chest that he wore his uniform through. He saw the most action at Argonne, the biggest, bloodiest battle that essentially ended the war. At 110, Tony remembered fondly the day peace was declared.
"I couldn’t believe it," Tony remembered in 2006. "Really! The war was over. Boy oh boy! What a day. Just like the sun come out of the clouds!"
The guns fell silent on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, 93 years ago. Tony went from fighting to flirting.
"Beautiful girls, they were all over the place" he said, remembering the long peacetime days in France with military drills and time to socialize left over. "There was one girl there, she was a saint. She was nice."
Tony had a French girlfriend, named Magdalena. It was a sweet end to a surly war he was lucky to survive.
"I was a soldier and tried to do my best," Tony remembered in 2006. "I wasn’t afraid to get killed. I’d go through anything. But I came back. A lot of the fellas, they lost an arm, a leg. They went blind. Many of my buddies, they kicked the bucket. Thank God I come out alive."
Tony Pierro came out of World War I alive, but a different man. Laskin, who profiled Tony in his book about immigrant veterans of the Great War, “The Long Way Home,” says Tony’s choice to fight in the U.S. Army instead of the Italian one changed everything.
"That choice, which so many Italian-Americans made," Laskin said, "brought him out of the ghetto, out of the narrow Italian world that he’d been living in ever since he had come to Swampscott. And really exposed him and catapulted him into the mainstream for the first time."
When Tony returned to Swampscott after the war, he had new skills and new confidence. He spoke English. He married an Italian-American woman and managed an auto body shop before working at the nearby General Electric plant in Lynn. His nephew Rick Pierro still lives in Swampscott and said Tony’s choice to fight for America set an example in the Pierro family for generations.
"From WWI on, we’ve had Pierros serve in the various wars," Rick Pierro said. "We’ve been on monuments in town, too."
Many of them chose to be buried in their uniforms, their U.S. Army uniforms.
Tony died in 2007, just days before his 111th birthday. Antonio "Tony" Pierro had been the last remaining foreign-born American soldier to have fought in World War I.
Editor's note: special thanks to radio producer Will Everett for sharing his 2006 taped interview with Tony. Everett produced a living history project documenting the last surviving WWI veterans.
This program aired on November 11, 2011.
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