20 April 2017

POW: My Grandfather's World War I Experience

My grandfather Adamo Leone (standing center) in World War I.
My grandfather Adamo Leone
(standing center) in World War I.

As a child I had a language barrier with my maternal grandfather. Adamo was a smiling, sweet man who didn't speak much and rarely in English.

He'd tell me in Italian to slow down or be quiet—with a smile on his face—but I don't remember him telling me stories.

I loved him unconditionally, but I knew nothing about him.

Perhaps the only tidbit of a story I had was that Adamo had been a prisoner of war during World War I, fighting for Italy, and that he was forced to eats rats to stay alive. That's all I ever heard.

With the 100th anniversary of World War I upon us, I've been thinking about my grandfather a lot, wondering where he fought, where he was imprisoned, and what horrible conditions he faced.

Some research into Italy's experience in World War I led me to the 1917 Battle of Caporetto in northern Italy. The battle was so devastating that 11,000 Italian soldiers died, 29,000 were wounded, and more than a quarter of a million were taken prisoner.

Adamo may have been among these prisoners.

The Austro-Hungarians who captured the Italians were unprepared to care for this many men. At least 100,000 Italian soldiers died in captivity. The men were kept in a large number of camps in places like Mauthausen (future site of a WWII concentration camp) and Milowitz, and they were dying from tuberculosis and starvation.

Adamo and family in America.
Adamo and family in America.
It's easy to imagine eating rats to stay alive.

The prisoners were doing hard labor in coal mines and stone quarries on a food supply of less than 1,000 calories a day.

Those who survived the camps until the end of the war were kept in quarantine camps by the Italian government so they could be interrogated and either cleared or prosecuted as traitors.

Adamo had come to America in 1914 to join a few of his cousins. He returned to Italy in August 1915, shortly after Italy entered the war. He did not leave for America again until February 1920, 15 months after the war ended.

I once heard that Adamo stayed with his parents in Italy for about two years, recovering from his captivity.

Imagine then making the decision to leave them forever to return to a better life in New York City.

It's easy to understand his sweeping this story under the rug. I'm just so glad he came back.

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