by Angelo DeCecco with contributions from Paul DeCecco
All families share stories which are intriguing, perhaps true but always alluring, about their shared past. One family story that intrigued me as a boy was of my two grandfathers who were both veterans of the Great War—World War I. My paternal grandfather, Romano DeCecco, fought as an “Alpino,” an Alpine soldier in the Italian Army in the mountains of Italy enduring mountain peak battles, adverse weather, and avalanches. My maternal grandfather, Raymond Bradshaw, was with the US Army “Over There” in France, fighting “in the trenches” and being “gassed” as an American “Doughboy.” Then there was the odd story of a relative who fought with the Canadians.
These stories became even more interesting to me as a 10-year-old in 1972 when I inherited a bayonet from my maternal grandfather. I was determined to learn more about this bayonet and my grandfather’s service, but this was to prove difficult, as his family lived far away and my mother had passed years before. Like much in life, my zeal to uncover the secrets of the bayonet and my grandfather’s service faded somewhat as the years marched forward, but I never completely forgot it. And the bayonet would eventually be part of a decades-long quest to learn about our family history of military service.
Perhaps propelled by the gift of the bayonet, I began my own military career in the United States Army. My first assignment was to Northern Italy in the mid-1980s where I was able to learn about my paternal grandfather’s service in the First World War. I met people who knew him, heard his stories first-hand, and I even climbed to many of the 1915–1918 mountain peak battlefields where he fought. I developed a true appreciation for what he had endured and survived during the war. Learning about my paternal grandfather’s service only made me more eager to learn about my maternal grandfather and his WWI experience, but again life, military moves, marriage, and children intervened, and this quest was placed on the backburner again.
Ten years passed, and I was assigned to Germany and was finally able to begin my search in earnest into my grandfather’s service in nearby France. Friendships are the hallmark of military service, and a friend I met on my first assignment was in a perfect position to help in my quest. While I was stationed in Germany, my Army buddy, now an archivist with the State of New York—the state where my grandfather lived—found his WWI military service record.
So, there it was in writing—Private Raymond L. Bradshaw: #2,357,538; Wagon Company 1, 23rd Engineer Regiment, Overseas Service January 1918–June 1919. Wow! Confirmation! But a Wagon Company in the engineers? Not exactly what I expected given the bayonet, but it was a start nonetheless. As best I could in the late 1990s, I began to research the 23rd Engineers WWI history, and with a 1938 copy of American Armies and Battlefields in Europe in hand, I set out to travel in my grandfather’s footsteps.
The 23rd Engineers, known as the “Highwaymen” or “Road Builders,” were formed at Camp Meade, Maryland in 1917 with the mission to build roads in France. My grandfather most likely responded to an engineer journal article calling for volunteers into this regiment. He signed up in October 1917, and by January 1918 he was aboard the USS Huron headed to Brest, France, where his 3500-man regiment initially built roads and warehouses to support the arrival of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). The “Road Builders” were quickly split up and sent all over France to build roads where U.S. General “Blackjack” Pershing gave them the title: “The Road Builders of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF).”
During the first all-US offensive at Saint Mihiel in September 1918, Wagon Company I was near Flirey, France filling shell holes and building roads across “no-man’s land.” My grandfather ended the war near Varennes, France, participating in the last great battle of the war—the Meuse-Argonne Offensive—and working in post-war Germany rebuilding infrastructure until his return to the US in June 1919.
My 1938 guidebook lists a monument built by the 23rd Engineers at the end of the war near Varennes, but I was unable to locate it. Locals remembered the monument, but as I later learned, just months before my arrival it had been removed as it had fallen into disrepair.
This experience ultimately led to my work with the American Memorials Overseas—https://www.uswarmemorials.org—documenting and working to protect private overseas memorials such as the one erected to the 23rd Engineers.
Despite this minor setback, I had the great fortune over several assignments to visit these locations with my daughters and walk those very battlefields. But what about the bayonet my grandfather had bequeathed to me? I had eventually learned that the bayonet was German, not American, so perhaps Grandpa had found it while rebuilding roads across the battlefields of Saint Mihiel. But my Army archivist buddy suggested I research the New York newspaper database to see if I could find some personal stories that might lead to an answer.
Researching family history has become much easier in the past several years with ancestry search tools, but searching news articles really brings life to the facts of family history. The first article I found about my grandfather was a 1909 article titled “Brother Against Brother,” referring to him and his twin brother playing professional basketball in the early years of that sport. They both played on early barnstorming basketball teams in the Hudson and Mohawk valleys of New York, which were early hotbeds of the sport. Nicknamed “Minn,” my grandfather and his twin, nicknamed “Haas,” were well-known players, playing from about 1907 until the beginning of the First World War. Playing with teams such as the 31st Separate Co. of Herkimer, NY, which handed the great NBA Hall of Fame Buffalo “Germans” their first loss after 110 straight victories in 1911, and with Basloe’s “Globetrotters” who claimed the title “World Champions” after defeating the Germans again in 1912. Minn and Haas were both subjects of great public interest when they headed off to war in 1917.
Following a family tradition of military service which includes family service in the War of 1812 and the Civil War, Haas enlisted on the day the US entered the war, donating the proceeds of his last game on April 6, 1917 to the Red Cross. Haas initially joined the nascent US Army Air Service with a desire to fly, but due to the Air Service’s inability to rapidly train pilots, he was released to join the British Royal Flying Corps (RFC) and learned to fly in Canada. He trained in Canada in a “Curtiss Jenny” aircraft and then at Fort Worth Texas, where he learned from the famed dancer who popularized the Foxtrot: Vernon Castle.
Early flying was fraught with danger. Haas was injured in a plane crash, and he witnessed his instructor, Vernon Castle, killed. Haas received his wings in April 1918, and arrived in Europe in August, flying a Bristol Scout over France. Newspaper articles highlighted his growing “kill” list and called him “Schenectady’s First Ace!” While I have not been able to corroborate these sensational stories, evidence indicates that in early September, Haas was shot down by what the newspapers wrote as a “gang of German planes eager for revenge.” Haas spent the rest of the war in hospitals in France and Britain and included in a list of his belongings returning from Britain in July 1919 is a bayonet along with other German enemy paraphernalia!
In the meantime, several newspaper accounts talk of my grandfather “Minn” and his wartime experience. One in particular discusses him “Going Over the Top” with the infantry during the battle of Saint Mihiel and spending three days lost in “No-Man’s Land.” While sensational accounts, these articles add some life to the facts of history I discovered a decade earlier.
After Haas returned to the US, he returned to his basketball career for a few years and then embarked on a subsequent life of adventure ranging from being a tax collector to a hotel owner and surviving the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. Sadly, he died in 1934, the year my mother was born, in the line of duty as a Sheriff in Schenectady, NY, ironically at a place called Bradshaw Corners.
My Grandfather built on his military experience, working with the Schenectady street department rising through the ranks to become the Schenectady Director of the Parks. He had six children, and despite his and his brother’s fighting in the “war to end all wars,” both of his sons and three of his sons-in-law saw action in the Pacific theater of World War II, where three of them received the Purple Hearts.
Although I have not been able to uncover exactly how my grandfather came across the bayonet—now just over 100 years old—it did serve to motivate me to uncover a great family story. I am proud to share the story and to continue our family’s legacy of over 200 years of military service to our Nation along with my brother, wife, nephew, and both of my daughters.
. . . and the caissons go rolling along . . .
Principal Author: Angelo DeCecco is a retired US Army Lieutenant Colonel, currently self-employed as Sommelier. He also is a Regional Researcher (Italy) for the non-profit American War Memorials Overseas.
Contributing author: Paul DeCecco is a retired US Army Colonel and currently is the Director of the Military and Veterans Programs for Pikes Peak Community College.