view of Salandra, Matera, Basilicata, Italy by Antonio DiPersia

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Italians in America and the Great War

Unidentified Italian soldiers in Austria during World War I
The following is the opening paragraph of a research paper published in Italian Americana in 1978 by Fiorello B. Ventresco.  The title of the paper is: Loyalty and Descent: Italian Reservists in America during World War I:
“In the summer of 1915, an angry mob of Italians in Philadelphia stormed the hall at Eighth and Christian Streets where a meeting was taking place and attacked several of the speakers.  The speakers were attempting to convince reservists not to return to Italy, where they would fight in the Great War. Such conflicts became common in various parts of America as the war continued.  The clash of opinions among Italians in the United States emerges as one of the most interesting and complex chapters in American history.” 
The entire 29 page article can be read at .  The author goes into great detail about the reasons for and reactions to Italy’s reach to America to get its young men to come back home and help fight in the war it just entered.  The enormous exodus of young Italian men to the United States and other countries during the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century drastically depleted the number of able-bodied young men available to serve in the Italian Army.  The Italian government never thought that these young men were permanently lost.  They considered them Italian citizens working in a foreign country and reservists in the Italian Army.  They assumed that they could get about 100,000 young men to return to Italy from the United States.  At the outbreak of the war, the U.S. government was neutral and formally announced that no foreign born residents could be forced to join foreign armies as long as they remained in the United States.   The records show that by December 1915, about 41% of the Italian men in the United States returned to Italy to fight in the war.  A remarkably high percentage.
How did this situation affect our Ambruso ancestors?  Consider the fact that the angry mob assembled at Eighth and Christian was just two blocks down the street from where Frank Ambruso and his sons and their families were living at the time.  Were they part of the protest? 
 Frank Ambruso was 70 years old in 1915, and already a naturalized American citizen since 1900. His sons, Michael and Leonardo were also naturalized citizens and fully absorbed into the American culture.  There is no indication that they served in the U.S. military, however they did fill out the required WW1 draft registration cards in 1918. 
Also in Philadelphia in 1915, Frank’s brother Joseph had two sons old enough to serve in the Italian Army.  Michael was 24 and Eugenio was 23.  Michael was married with two children and lived just four blocks from the scene of the 1915 demonstration.  He submitted his application for naturalization before that, in January 1914 and was granted United States citizenship in May 1918.  Obviously, he had no intention of joining the Italian Army.  The same must have been true of his brother Eugenio who was granted U.S. Citizenship in 1923. 
My own grandfather, Michael, was in Garfield, NJ in 1915 when Italy entered the war.  He had already served in the Italian Army before he came to America.  In 1918, near the end of the war, enlisted in the U.S. Army and gained U.S. citizenship.  His brother-in-law, Lawrence Mancini married to Felicia Ambruso, enlisted with him.  Unlike many of their fellow Italian immigrants, my grandfather and his brother-in-law seemed to have cut ties with the old country and embrace the new one. 
We do know what one Ambruso ancestor did answer the call.  “Hartford Mike”, Michele Ambruso (b. 1890) was in the USA in 1915 when he decided to return to Italy to serve in his country by joining the Italian Army.  It also helped that his wife was still in Italy.  He was not alone.  When he eventually returned to the United States in 1923, the passenger manifest of the ship he was on shows scores of young men who must have done the same thing.  The record shows that they were in America until 1915 and then returned to Italy.  So it seems that Hartford Mike was the only Ambruso family member that answered the call from Italy and joined the Italian Army during the Great War…La Grande Guerra.

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