By Master Sgt. Jeremy D. CrispJune 12, 2018
FORT HAMILTON, N.Y. -- In summer 2017, Justin Batt, the director of the Harbor Defense Museum at Fort Hamilton, New York, met a member of the New York Army National Guard's 13th Coastal Artillery.
The meeting wasn't face to face. Nor did the meeting take place by telephone. Rather, the meeting was happenstance, and it would lead the museum director on a journey through time.
Batt had been directing the museum less than a year. He was combing through the roughly 3,000 museum artifacts for a new display to honor America's and the Army's 100th anniversary of entry into World War I.
In the archives he "met" Army First Class Gunner Angelo A. Rizzo, a young man from Brooklyn, New York, sent to war in France in 1918. What he found led him on a mission to honor a legacy and inspire the next generation of Soldiers.
"The first thing that captivated me was the image," Batt said of finding Rizzo's portrait in the museum's collection.
The black-and-white image is of a teenaged Italian-American. His eyes and forehead are covered in shadow from the round-brimmed service hat he's wearing. Short-cropped hair, the color of midnight black, frames a youthful face. Rizzo's World War I-era Army uniform is pressed as if it just came from the cleaners. He's professional looking, sharp, a model Soldier. Rizzo has a coastal artillery patch the shape of a projectile on the right sleeve of his service coat. His photograph is in near-perfect condition. It could have been an image of one of millions of Soldiers of the day -- 18, 19 years old, barely men, who would board ships bound for the European Western Front.
Yet Rizzo's story would unfold to museum director Batt in more than image. The young Soldier's journey from training in New York to fighting in France was documented there in the museum in the form of his personal diary.
"Looking through the diary, it's like an adventure book you are reading through; you are there with him," Batt said, excitement in his voice. "You have an image of this American Soldier, and now you are actually with him, and you don't know how it's going to end."
The diary chronicles Rizzo's journey from Fort Hamilton, then a coastal defense fort which still actively operates at the southern tip of the New York Harbor, through his time in France during World War I, and back to New York.
The diary starts in March 1918. Rizzo details the departure of his unit from New York City aboard the British HMT Olympic, a sister ship to the Titanic.
"Left Fort Hamilton, N.Y. March 27, 1918."
"Left New York on Army transport Olimpic (sic) March 28, 1918."
"Arrived at Brest (France) Harbor Apr. 4, 1918."
Rizzo details his overseas voyage in a few short pages. He decided to keep a memento along the way.
A slip of paper, preserved yet worn to the yellowish-brown color of an ancient scroll, detailed Rizzo's living arrangement aboard the vessel.
"One of my favorite items in here is his bunk and mess assignment card," Batt said.
The card told Soldiers onboard the HMT Olympic where to eat, mess and sleep.
"KEEP THIS CARD" it reads.
"Your quarters are on deck D, compartment A."
"You will occupy one hammock."
Before boarding the Olympic, however, Rizzo trained at Fort Hamilton as part of his service in the New York Army National Guard. He was mustered into active federal service in August 1917, and shortly after he was transferred into the headquarters company of the 59th Artillery, Coastal Artillery Corps, at Fort Hamilton.
Soldiers of the time had specific job specialties, just like in today's modern Army. Rizzo was one of a few Soldiers who could read and write well, Batt said.
"They chose him to be a telephone operator," he said. "He would spend his time running lines between the battalion headquarters and the other artillery batteries."
Someone who can relate to that job, and who helped discover Rizzo's collection at the museum, is Tom Trombone, a volunteer at the Harbor Defense Museum. Trombone, like Rizzo, is a Brooklyn native who served in the Army as a radioman, albeit from 1949-51.
"We were running the same wire they were running in World War I," said Trombone, who along with Batt was still thrilled to talk about Rizzo a year after discovering the collection.
Trombone helped Batt conduct research for the exhibit, which is currently on display at the museum. It consists of Rizzo's picture, boarding card, perfectly preserved service uniform, his diary and his identification tag, known colloquially as a "dog tag."
Trombone said that if he could sit down and have a cup of coffee with Rizzo, he would ask him about his time in the coastal artillery and of his time during the war.
"And then," he said, "I would tell him 'thank you.'"
Rizzo's journey to France and his unit's movement to the front is fairly uneventful, according to his diary. That is, until the early morning of Sept. 2, 1918.
"On the morning of Sept. 2, 1918, about 4 a.m. we got our first taste of war," Rizzo wrote. "I was on gas guard and had just woke up my relief. When it seemed as if the whole heavens had opened up and poured out flames. You could hear those shells whistle over head and break on the hills behind. It was lucky for us that we were in a valley."
That wasn't the end of Rizzo's taste of war. His journey takes him through some of the heaviest fighting of the war and leads him to a final battle, one of America's costliest in terms of lives lost.
"Started Argonne-Meuse drive Sept. 26, 1918 -- 2:30 a.m.," his diary reads.
Known as the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, history documents it as one of the decisive engagements of World War I. It involved over 1 million U.S. Soldiers and was part of a series of battles known as the Hundred Days Offensive. It lasted until the armistice of Nov. 11, 1918, a day which we now celebrate as Veterans Day.
Rizzo made it through days and nights of constant fighting during this culminating battle. His unit, the 59th Artillery, sent round after round at the entrenched Germans. They received many in return, Rizzo chronicled.
For museum director Batt, reading the diary was an emotional journey, he said. He could feel in Rizzo's words the ups and downs of his journey from New York to the Western Front, and back home.
"Reading it early on you can sense that he's on an adventure, you can tell he's excited," Batt said. "But as things move on and he gets toward the front, you can tell he's gone from just being an adventure, he's not fearful for his life, to all of a sudden, he's realizing that he's at war, and he realizes that this is dangerous and that he might not survive."
Rizzo did survive, though, and he made it home.
One of the last entries in his diary reads, "We arrived in New York Jan. 24, 1919."
The story could have ended there, lost to history. But Rizzo's family found his artifacts and donated them to the museum in the 1980s.
"To celebrate the centennial of World War I, you want to have a nice story," Batt said. "This one couldn't have been better."
Batt wanted to ensure that along with Rizzo's artifacts, there was a visual representation of his experience. So, he painstakingly charted the World War I Soldier's course. It took him and his team of volunteers over a month to get the details right.
Today, the relics of the teenaged Soldier from Brooklyn, along with a full-color map detailing his journey, are on display at the Harbor Defense Museum. The collection is available for viewing, along with the rest of the museum, Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Batt and Trombone will likely be there, as well.
"At the end of the day, I hope this story inspires other Soldiers," Batt said. "We want them to see what others have done before them, and to teach them that there is no mission too difficult when Soldiers come together to overcome their fears."
To honor Rizzo's memory, and the memories of millions of Americans like him who served during World War I, the U.S. Army will commemorate the centennial anniversary of America's entry into the war again this year on the Army's birthday, June 14, with festivities around the world.
As for Rizzo's tale after returning to New York, Batt found that he left the Army and went to work for the Brooklyn Transit Authority.
For more information on the Harbor Defense Museum, Fort Hamilton, or U.S. Army First Class Gunner Angelo A. Rizzo, visit www.hamilton.army.mil/ or call the Harbor Defense Museum at (718) 630-4349.