Marshaling War Memories

April 06, 1994|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,Sun Staff Writer

Alfredo Angelo Appetito was sworn into the U.S. Army 77 years ago after he insulted the recruiting officer -- in English or Italian, depending on the version of the story -- who only moments before had rejected him for his inability to recite the ABCs. The World War I veteran, who will turn 96 in a few days, has been chosen to be the grand marshal of Glen Burnie's Memorial Day parade May 22. He will travel the parade route in a convertible, waving to crowds that line the streets.

"Why not? I have good hands," he said.

His eyesight is failing, he is deaf in one ear from war injuries and barely hears from his left ear.

But he enjoys the celebrity of serving as grand marshal, said his son, Ernest, with whom he lives.

"The bigger the parade is, the better it is," Alfredo Appetito said. And, he noted, "it's not walking."

Mr. Appetito takes short walks around his Suburbia neighborhood and occasionally can be found on a ladder yanking vines from the side of his house. But marching the parade route from Harundale Mall to the Glen Burnie Improvement Association's carnival grounds in the heat would be too much.

He spends much of his time cooking, -- "He can make anything taste great," said Ernest Appetito --washing dishes, taking naps, watching the world go by from a sunny kitchen window and taking in a few evening game shows on TV.

His living room wall displays his Purple Heart and a Victory Medal with bars from three campaigns: Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne and Defensive Sector.

Joseph Corcoran, parade chairman, said he sought an elderly local veteran to lead the parade to remind people that Memorial Day memorializes those who served in American wars. He couldn't find a veteran from an earlier war, and Mr. Appetito came to mind because he has received past honors from veterans groups.

Fewer than 30,000 of the 4.7 million World War I veterans are alive. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates that 25 die each day; their average age is 95.

Mr. Appetito will be wearing a World War I uniform on loan from the 5th Regimental Army in Baltimore -- but may don the hat given to him last year by the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 434, of which he is a life member. Mr. Appetito said one of the reasons he agreed to lead the parade is that past Post Commander John McNeese, his neighbor, will drive the grand marshal's car.

Mr. Appetito came to the United States from outside Rome when he was 12. As a youth, he worked picking rocks out of coal in mines.

Then he took a job at the Eddystone, Pa., munitions factory. He was there on April 10, 1917, the day the plant mysteriously blew up, four days after the United States entered World War I. About 125 people were killed in the explosion, believed to have caused by German or Bolshevik saboteurs.

In the tumult, Mr. Appetito and a friend boarded the wrong bus and were deposited in Philadelphia. A stranger directed them to the house of a family from Rome. They knocked on the door.

"It was my brother's godmother. I didn't know her, she didn't know me, but she knew my people," Mr. Appetito said. She took them in.

The young men saw so many signs in Philadelphia encouraging them to "Join the Army" that after a while it seemed like a good idea. They went into a recruiting station, but Mr. Appetito, then 19, was unable to read and write much English.

"The recruiter called me. He asked me to tell him the ABCs in English. But I didn't know it. He said, 'Go home. When you learn the ABCs, come back and you can join the Army.'

"I went down a few steps," Mr. Appetito recalled. There, he issued an insult, either in English or Italian, which the recruiter heard. "He said, 'Come back, you are in,' " Mr. Appetito said.

Private Appetito was in Company D, 58th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. His training included learning the ABCs, he said.

He survived being on a ship bound for France that was torpedoed. He suffered numerous battlefield injuries on July 19, 1918, at Chateau-Thierry/Soissons; received the Purple Heart; and was hospitalized in Vichy. On Dec. 12, 1919, he was discharged, though soon after was hospitalized at Fort McHenry.

He married three times, raised a family, moving from South Baltimore to Linthicum Heights to Glen Burnie, and worked for 35 years as welder for the Bethlehem Steel Corp. He retired 30 years ago.

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