In The Long Way Home, journalist David Laskin sets out to tell the stories of 12 immigrant men who served in the U.S. armed forces during World War I. Like half a million other non-native combatants fighting for Uncle Sam in “the war to end all wars,” Laskin’s dozen—three Jews, four Italians, two Poles, an Irishman, a Norwegian and a Slovak—were relatively new to America, having endured Ellis Island during the great wave of U.S. immigration in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Still struggling to establish themselves in an alien land where they spoke little English, where low-level employment was the norm and where they were looked on with some suspicion, these plucky fellows embraced the U.S. mission in Europe and distinguished themselves with honor. Three died in France, two won the Congressional Medal of Honor and all fought in major engagements, including the breaking of the Hindenburg Line and the taking of the Argonne Forest. Laskin’s thorough research into these lives encompassed digging into letters, diaries, battlefield reports and the National Archives and, whenever possible, conducting interviews with family members, including a face-to-face sit-down in 2006 with one of his subjects, Tony Pierro, who lived to be 111.
A marvelous craftsman, Laskin interweaves the soldiers’ personal profiles into a greater context, which positions his work equally as a history that deftly covers the background of the war and all its contemporary political ramifications, and also as a keen piece of social reflection on the role of the immigrant in shaping the fabric of American society. Laskin’s work also proves invaluable for readers interested in World War I military operations, as he follows the 12 men into battle, offering detailed accounts of their experiences and bravery on the front lines. A concluding chapter summarizes the postwar lives of those who survived, all of whom returned to America to live relatively quiet and productive lives, fully committed to the new homeland for which they fought.
Martin Brady writes from Nashville.