Sparta family treasures scrapbook

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  • Former Byram Mayor and veteran Richard Bowe (l) speaks at the Byram Township Memorial Day Service in May, 2018. Bowe is the past Commander of the Byram VFW Post 10559 and he is an at-large member of the VFW. He served in the U.S. Army Security Agency during the early part of the Vietnam era. (Photo by Mandy Coriston).

  • Quonset hut damage, April 1944.

  • Michael Antoniello (l) and a unit buddy with their skis, taken at their station in the Aleutian Islands during WWII.

  • Michael Antoniello (L) recieves an award for his service from Michael Connors of the Catholic War Veterans, in this photo provided by Antoniello's daughter, Sparta resident Marianne Antoniello-Willis.  (Photo provided).

Sparta - Marianne Antoniello-Willis’s father, Michael Antoniello, will turn 99 years old on March 12, 2019, and while dementia has robbed him of much of his memory, a scrapbook of his military service during World War II keeps his stories alive. Filled with snapshots, newspaper clippings, personal letters, and captioned in Michael’s own words, the large album was originally compiled by Antoniello-Willis’s mother. Honora Agnes McDonald, Michael’s then-fiancée, to whom he would mail the items from his duty station in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska.

“Dad was stationed in Anchorage and the Aleutians for the duration of his war service,” Antoniello-Willis said, “And while they didn’t see much action, their job was to keep watch on the Bering Strait for Russian or Japanese encroachment.” The Aleutian Islands were the site of the Battle of Adak, during which American troops took back the islands of Kiska and Attu (in the Western Aleutians) from invading Japanese forces. The battle is little-known due in part to its remote location, but mostly because it was fought at the same time as the much more widely remembered Battle of Midway, in the first week of June 1942.

“My father enlisted in July of 1942, after my grandfather died, and was in until the end of 1945," Antoniello-Willis said.

Antoniello’s discharge papers show he was officially separated from the Army on Dec. 27, 1945. During his time in the Aleutians, his unit suffered losses not by enemy hand, but by an act of nature.

“An avalanche crushed some of the Quonset huts they used for shelter,” she said, “And Dad lost some of his buddies. He said it was tremendously sad.”

Quonset huts are light-weight, prefabricated buildings that were used extensively during World War II by all branches of the US military because of their ease of transportation and construction. Photos in the album, dated February 1944, show the men digging to retrieve huts that had become buried under snow, and later photos from May 1944 show twisted metal shells; the true nature of the damage was not revealed until after the last of the snow had melted. Antoniello-Willis and her brother, also named Michael, took a trip to Alaska in the late 1990s, and visited Fort Richardson in Anchorage.

“We went to the World War II museum there,” she said. “And we saw replicas of the Quonset huts. I can’t even imagine them being buried in snow. It must have been awful.”

The scrapbook also contains newsletters titled “The Adakian,” which at one point during Antoniello’s service was edited by none other than famed noir novelist Dashiell Hammett, author of such hard-boiled classics as The Thin Man and The Maltese Falcon. Hammett served as a sergeant in the Army and later co-wrote a book about his time in the Aleutians. There are press clippings and a candid photograph of Hammett in the field among the preserved memorabilia.

Watching the Bering Strait from a barren island in the Northern Pacific didn’t lend for much excitement, but the men filled their days with skiing and hiking. The album has scenic shots of the mountainous terrain in all weather conditions, and a few of Antoniello, a Brooklyn native, learning to ski.

“Dad didn’t take too well to skiing,” Antoniello-Willis said, “He always said he stopped because he almost broke his leg.”

Returning home after his service, Antoniello married his fiancée in 1946. He went on to own a hardware store until his retirement, after which he split his time traveling between his beloved Brooklyn and his family in Sparta. These days, he resides in the St. Alban’s Veterans’ Home. In 1999, Antoniello-Willis painstakingly disassembled the original book and recreated it in a new, sturdier album, complete with her father’s oft-witty original photo captions.

“Unfortunately, he doesn’t remember any of his service anymore,” she said, “The scrapbook is all we have of his war stories.”

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