By Matt Cutugno
Indio, CA, USA
My uncle Ralph passed away in June of this year. He was ninety years old and was the last member of his generation in my family. Recently, while I was going through his things, I made a remarkable discovery. I found a Purple Heart awarded to his father, Matteo Totaro, who served in World War I. The remarkable thing is that I didn't know about the medal. No one in my family, not my uncle, my father, nor anyone else had ever mentioned this notable bit of personal history. I wondered why.
I took it out of its box and held it in my hand. I'd never seen one up-close before. It's made of copper and zinc and crafted in the shape of a heart. On the obverse side, there is a second heart, black in color. That serves as a background for the raised, gilded profile of George Washington. At the top of the medal, where it affixes to its now-faded purple and white ribbon, is a small ceramic inlay – a shield with stars and floral borders. On the reverse side is imprinted my grandfather's name.
The Purple Heart is unique award. While other medals might recognize "Gallantry," "Conspicuous Bravery," or "Distinguished Service," the Purple Heart is given for something more basic to war – the shedding of blood in the service of your country.
The history of the award is also unique. Though the idea for it came from George Washington, it did not become official until 1932, when it was declared retroactive to 1917. On the box of Matteo's medal is a date – 4/26/33 – which means that he received his Purple Heart some fifteen years after World War I ended.
Matteo Totaro was an Italian immigrant who came to this country in 1908 from the Puglia region of Italy, where he was a calzolaio, a shoemaker. He never learned to speak much English, so it's unlikely he initiated the effort to secure his Purple Heart. It must have been my father Matt and my uncle Ralph who applied for him. Or perhaps the federal government contacted the family directly.
I wonder under what circumstances he was wounded. America was a late entry into World War I and fought in two major battles during the famed Hundred Days Offensive that ended the fighting. The Battle of Amiens and the Second Battle of the Somme, both in mid-1918, essentially drove the Germans out of France and broke their will. Was my grandfather in the trenches fighting for his life in one or both of those terrible engagements?
I'm resigned to the fact that I likely will never know the answers to questions about this family artifact. My grandmother, my father Matt, uncle Ralph, Aunt Lillian, and all others who might remember the details are gone.
It strikes me that when loved ones pass away we not only lose once living spirits, but gone too forever are witnesses to history.