Jubilant New Yorkers took to the streets when the Great War ended at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918, my late grandmother’s ninth birthday.
The gritty Brooklyn waterfront neighbourhood where she lived celebrated mightily, but a grim legacy of the war went on to take an even deadlier toll.
“People filled the streets. It was so exciting, even though I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening,” Marie Starace recalled years later. “They were laughing, crying, and singing. Some men fired guns into the air.
“A woman fell to her knees in the street with her hands together as if she was praying. She was crying so hard that looking at her made me cry, too.” Despite the passage of time, my grandmother’s eyes filled with tears as she described the scene.
Later in life, during many tea-soaked storytelling sessions with me about her life, Armistice Day remained a vivid memory for my grandmother.
The cessation of hostilities had been anticipated for days. There had even been an inaccurate report of an armistice on 7 November. It finally came to pass on 11 November, a date the adventurous little girl, who was mostly called Mary, was sure to remember.
A multitude headed to the 14th Regiment Armory on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, she told me, and my grandmother made the long walk from the docks with them. To this day a bronze of a “doughboy,” as soldiers in the American Expeditionary Forces were known, stands there in the name of the “Men of the 14th Infantry who were engaged in the World War 1917-1918.” The sculpture was donated by families who lost loved ones in the war.
The crowds swelled and marched on to where soldiers were gathering near Prospect Park at the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial Arch, dedicated to those who fought to defend the union in the US Civil War. The sight of the soldiers brought the throng to fever pitch.
“Soldiers were already marching by the time I got to the park. When I saw the parade, I thought they were celebrating my birthday!”
She marched with them, she said, fondly recalling a soldier who gave her a nickel. It was a precious gift, good for a small sack of flour or some apples in a neighborhood where families, including her own, scraped at times to make ends meet, hard times made harder by the war.
On the steps of a house not far from where she lived, my grandmother saw a young man sitting quietly by himself. “I wondered why he seemed so sad,” she remembered. She asked her mother, my great-grandmother, about him. “Mamma said, ‘Leave him alone, Mary. He’s shell-shocked.”
The suffering and deprivation the war wrought hung heavy over Europe and the United States like so much cannon-fire smoke as people struggled to restore equilibrium to a shattered world.
Soldiers returned home broken, with mental and physical wounds, some with lungs burned raw by mustard gas, others with the Spanish flu, called La Grippe in Europe and “The Grippe” in Brooklyn. The war to end all wars claimed some 17 million lives.
The pandemic killed at least 50 million worldwide, about 675,000 in the United States, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimated in its 100th-year commemoration of the flu pandemic.
For the daughter of ship’s pilot Salvatore Starace and Antonia Esposito, “the grippe” was another indelible childhood memory. New York City’s Health Department struggled to contain the disease, quarantining stricken households and restricting public gatherings.
My grandmother recounted bodies being put on ice inside horse-drawn trucks as morgues filled up. Hospital staffs were depleted by the flu, and my grandmother told of men who had been medics in the Army pitching in.
Her maternal uncle, Alexander Esposito, who served with the US Army, was one of them. “Uncle Allie volunteered to help at the hospital because he had some medical training,” she told me. “Mamma was worried that he would get the flu and die.”
In Brooklyn alone in 1918, 4,514 people died from influenza from a population of 1,798,513, according to almanacs published in 1918 and 1920 by the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper.
Until she died in 1996, whenever my grandmother saw me going out with an open coat, she warned: “Button up or you’ll get the grippe.”
By many written and photographic accounts New York City threw caution to the wind on Armistice Day.
“I never saw anything like that day,” she told me.