10 Questions with Robert J. Dalessandro

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Talking about WWI, AEF Collecting, and Promoting the Hobby

 Robert Dalessandro, a Virginia native, has devoted his life to the study of the American Expeditionary Force and the role of its soldiers in WWI. He has published several books on the subject and is deeply involved in the work of the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC).

Robert Dalessandro, a Virginia native, has devoted his life to the study of the American Expeditionary Force and the role of its soldiers in WWI. He has published several books on the subject and is deeply involved in the work of the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC).

This month, we had the privilege to talk with Robert J. Dalessandro. Many will recognize him from his many books related to the lifestyle and material culture of American soldiers from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries with an emphasis on the American Expeditionary Forces during WWI.

A native of Virginia, Robert Dalessandro graduated from the Virginia Military Institute with a degree in History in 1980. His graduate studies included work at the College of William and Mary, the U.S. Army War College and George Washington University. A retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, Robert is currently the Acting Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission. Prior to this, he served as the Director of the United States Army Center of Military History at Fort Lesley J. McNair, Washington, D.C.

He is co-author of the Organization and Insignia of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1923, which received the Army Historical Foundation award for excellence in writing; Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War; American Lions: the 332nd Infantry Regiment in Italy in World War I; Over There: America in the Great War, and is the editor of the official National Park Service history of World War I, World War I Remembered. In addition, he serves as the current editor of the Army Officer’s Guide.

When not working on books or performing the duties of the Acting Secretary of the American Battle Monuments Commission, Robert frequently leads battlefield tours to sites in the United States, France, and Italy.

Military Trader: First, thanks for taking the time to share with us, Robert. Though many readers may recognize you from your books, few know about the diverse experiences in your life leading up to your focus on militaria. Tell us about some of the life influences that have developed your keen desire to preserve military history.

Robert J. Dalessandro: I was a child of the 1960s and 1970s, and I grew up in the period of the Centennial of the Civil War and the Bicentennial of the Revolution. My father was in the Navy and his work kept us moving between Washington, D.C., Norfolk, Virginia, and Long Island, New York, so it seemed like military history was always all around me.

One of my earliest memories was hunting minié balls in Williamsburg, Va. I was hooked after finding a pocketful of relics on one of those first walks on the battlefield! I was actively collecting by the time I was five, reenacting as a teenager, and out with a metal detector after school.

I was lucky. I had great mentors and met so many good people in the field. So many of them are sadly gone, but Francis Lord, George Marinos, John Henry Kurtz, and Brian Pohanka come to mind. They loved to share their knowledge. That is key to keeping a hobby alive. It was always a boundless adventure.

Military Trader: Why has WWI history captivated much of your career as an author and even your time since you have retired? 

Robert J. Dalessandro: Both of my grandfathers were in World War I, and I remember hearing their stories. Those stories made a big impression on me, to say the least.

As I grew older, I realized that, in many ways, the World War I generation had a greater impact on the world we live in than any of their forbearers. Think about this: Those people grew up in the age of the horse and buggy and passed away in the age of jet travel. When they were born, chances were that they would never see more than the county in which they grew up. In fact, many of them traveled to Europe; saw the big cities of the east coast and beyond; their generation bridged the Gilded Era and the twentieth century; they brought America onto the world stage; and they birthed the “Greatest Generation.” They presided over dramatic changes in technology, medicine, civil rights, and women’s suffrage. We really do live under the long shadow of World War I.

Military Trader: My first exposure to your writing was your book Willing Patriots: Men of Color in the First World War (Schiffer: 2009). This book accomplished two significant achievements: It was the first modern study of African-Americans who served in WWI, and it was the first in-depth presentation of artifacts specifically associated with these troops. What led to your interest in the topic?

Robert J. Dalessandro: Like so many topics in World War I, I felt like very little had been written about these largely forgotten patriots. Bill Gladstone had encouraged me to do something for years, but the book was really born when Mitch Yokelson, from NARA, shared a period War Department listing of every African-American unit in the AEF. Before I saw that list, I had been aware that the numbering of “colored” units was specific. As an example, “colored” Pioneer Units were numbered in the 800 series, e.g., the 805th Pioneer Infantry Regiment. I had never seen a complete listing, and now I had one in my hands. I knew I had to share this with others. That find was coupled with the sudden availability of Tom Fife’s amazing collection of photographs of African-American soldiers — we were off and running!

 An avid collector of WWI unit insignia, Robert is a frequent show attendee and is always searching for rare and obscure patches.

An avid collector of WWI unit insignia, Robert is a frequent show attendee and is always searching for rare and obscure patches.

Military Trader: One of your earlier studies, Organization and Insignia of the American Expeditionary Forces, 1917-1923, took on two great gaps in WWI collecting: A thorough examination of the diverse units to serve overseas and the specialized insignia they wore. Combining the in-depth scholarly research into tables of organizations and then melding it to artifactual evidence had to be a daunting task. Tell us about how you researched the two topics to create the final product. Had you been a patch collector prior to this study? Are you one today? 

Robert J. Dalessandro: This book really was a labor of love, and you should know that we (co-author Mike Knapp and I) are still researching changes to it to this day. The inside joke is that Mike and I were working on this volume since 1976. That’s when we first started talking about writing the book together. More on that later.

The book began as the companion volume to Shelby Stanton’s WWII Order of Battle that Stackpole Books published. Stanton had finished Vietnam and Stackpole asked me to do WWI. So, Mike and I worked to flesh out the War Department’s five volume Order of Battle of the Land Forces of the World War, so that it was user friendly and marry that to the War Department Combat Summaries and in the case of service support units, the AEF SOS monographs. About three quarters of the way through the process, Stackpole’s marketing department decided that there simply was no market for World War I books — they felt it would not sell. So, we were sitting there with a partial manuscript and no publisher.

At the last minute, we opted to add the shoulder sleeve insignia, as the Keller Brothers had assembled a large photo database of insignia that they had not published. I started collecting World War I shoulder sleeve insignia (SSI) at a very young age and have continued ever since. I love the endless varieties; however, I had always been disappointed with the reference material available. There were a couple of books out there; the Keller Brothers had published the best book, but it did not give any information about the units. I wanted that in there too. I pitched the book to Schiffer, and thankfully, they took it.

Military Trader: In 2013, Congress established the World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) which it charged with planning, developing and executing programs to commemorate the centennial of World War I. Tell us about your work with the commission, how you have seen it serve that mission, and what you role you see the Commission taking after 2018.

Robert J. Dalessandro: I have truly enjoyed my work with the WWICC. Our principal mission is to educate the American people about the nation’s participation in World War I. We are working hard to accomplish this through a variety of means, including education programs that have engaged millions of K-12 students.

There has also been a fairly successful grass roots effort administered through a vigorous series of programs throughout the United States. The WWICC organized state commissions in almost all of the states and encouraged World War I exhibits in a wide range of national, state, and local museums.

We are not there yet, but we are trying to spark a conversation at the national level. It is a tough sell without living veterans and America’s far more substantial role in World War Two, but we keep pushing.

Another of our missions is to revitalize Washington, D.C.’s Pershing Park and dedicate it as a National World War I Memorial in conjunction with the national memorial in Kansas City. This is where I see a continuing role for the WWICC after November 2018.

Military Trader: You have led battlefield tours. Tell us about that aspect of your personal portfolio. Do you offer tours at a commercial level, or is it simply a role that your passion pushed you into performing for friends and family — or both?

Robert J. Dalessandro: Over the years, I have done tours for the military, for commercial tour companies, for Congress, and for large companies. Lately, I have focused on American sites in France of both WWI and WWII.

No matter what the audience, I use the same recipe at every stop: I orient everyone to the map; recap what has happened before we got to this stop, and explain what happened where we are; open for questions; and end with a short vignette from a participant. That way, people leave understanding the progress of the event we are studying and are ready to move along in the story. One of my bosses used to say, “It’s a story, and we are turning pages in the book.”

Military Trader: What advice would you give to our readers who may be considering a WWI or WWII battlefield tour opportunity? What should a person know before traveling to Europe with the goal of touring battlefields?Do the old, post-WWI Michelin Battlefield Guides still adequately serve self-led tours?

Robert J. Dalessandro: If you are considering a trip to WWI or WWII battlefields and it is in your budget — go!Don’t worry about not speaking French, if that is stopping you. Don’t worry about driving or finding your way around. The French people around the American sectors remember that we came there to help free them. They love to see Americans and interact with them. Most young people speak some English, or in many cases, are nearly fluent in English. The French are gracious hosts and do not fit the stereotype you often hear.

TheMeuse-Argonne is largely untouched and mostly pristine. There is a walking trail covering Sergeant York’s action, a nice wayside by the Lost Battalion site, a lovely museum in the town of Romagne near our Meuse-Argonne Cemetery and visitor center (incidentally, the largest American Cemetery in France).

I personally love the area around Chateau-Thierry. Our newest visitor center here orients visitors to the actions at Cantigny, the Marne Defense, and Belleau Wood. The Belleau Wood Battlefield is administered by ABMC and has a newly published brochure/trail map featuring a self-guided walking tour.

The Michelin Battlefield Guides are dated. The best battlefield guide to the American WWI sites is the American Armies and Battlefields in Europe, often referred to as the American Battle Monuments Commission “Bluebook.”It is simply the best work on the AEF. Copies are available online at vendors including ABE Books, and often on Ebay.

The book was reprinted by the Army Center of Military History for the 75th Anniversary of WWI (1992). This is the best edition to take to Europe. ABMC is publishing an updated and abbreviated version that is scheduled to be out in spring. That will be the preferred source as it will follow the Major Holt’s Guide format.

Military Trader: What project, if any, is next on your writing list? Is there an aspect of US WWI involvement that you would like to see in an–depth study similar to those you have co-authored on the African-Americans or the 332nd Infantry in Italy?

Robert J. Dalessandro: When we started writing Organization and Insignia, the very ambitious original goal was to run down every unit in the AEF. We are not there today for sure, and we certainly were not when we had to turn in the manuscript. In the end, we want to do a new turn on the book and completely redo everything beyond the divisions.

World War I was the first fully industrialized war, and it required a lot of “logistical tail” (as the Army likes to say, the “tooth to tail ratio”— the ratio of infantrymen to support troops/contractors). That number was far different in WWI from earlier American wars. Depending on how you count, tooth to tail was about 1:6 in the Civil War and 1:32 in WWI. So lately, our focus has been on the tail structure: Ports, base support, railheads, light rail, truck companies, spruce squadrons, coffee mill companies, to name a few.

We have just about finished with all of the engineer units and their insignia, but we are still searching out a complete unit level listing for the SOS, Base Sections, etc. We would love to deliver a listing of every unit and exactly where they were stationed, what they did and what insignia they wore.

Military Trader: What role, if any, does militaria collecting take in your life? Who do you think is suited to care for the relics of our military past?

Robert J. Dalessandro: John, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. My love of history and enthusiasm for collecting has shaped my career and my life.

Our hobby is important to preserving history and making young Americans more aware of the accomplishments of past generations. I worry about the future of our hobby.

I still spend a lot of time at collector shows, and I just do not see that many young people getting involved in the hobby. I think this problem is dual-based. First, and sadly, the Millennial Generation are not collectors. They crave experience based activities not “stuff.”Millennials prefer a bike ride around the rim of a volcano in a distant land to collecting some piece of military ephemera. I’m not sure what we can do about that.

Second, in many cases, we have priced young collectors out of the market. One of my favorite collecting stories was the moment I picked up my first World War I tunic. There I was walking around the sutler area at the 110th Anniversary of Gettysburg with Ron Northrup, looking for a Springfield musket in the $150 price range (absolutely all I could afford). The only musket I could find in that range was an 1863 special contract Bridesburg. Ron said to me, “You know, for $150, you could buy a complete WWI uniform down to the underwear. Civil War is just too expensive.”Moments later, we saw a nice M1909 tunic with a stand and fall collar, chevron cuffs, bullion District of Paris patch, and regimental sergeant major stripes (of course, we had no idea why it was such a funny looking tunic — that knowledge came later). The price $15.

My point is that a kid could afford that tunic. Today, that would be out of reach for a young collector.

For the good of the hobby, we need to find young folks and get them interested and involved. I wish I had an answer to this problem, but I know it has affected every field of collecting. My wife is an avid eighteenth century decorative arts collector and that market is flat too. Every militaria and antique dealer to whom I speak agrees — we need to find a way to preserve our hobby.

Military Trader: Our readers love stories about collectors’ “Favorite Finds.” Tell us about what you consider to be one of your favorite finds.

Robert J. Dalessandro: About a year ago, I was doing a lot of research on the 26th Division. A friend, Jeff Gusky, was working on a documentary for the Smithsonian Channel featuring the chalk caves up near the Chemin des Dames, where the 26th Division soldiers lived shortly after they arrived in France. I was doing research for that show.

The 26th had always been one of my favorite divisions: They had the most combat time for a National Guard Division during WWI and seemed to be at every major campaign of the AEF. I particularly admired their commander, Major General Clarence R. Edwards. He was a tough commander and great leader. The sharp-tongued Edwards was not one of Pershing’s favorites, however, so he was eventually relieved and replaced.

I was having dinner with a good friend, Scott Kraska, when he told me that he had picked up Clarence Edwards’ medals. Of course, he got a great deal on them, and I knew he would never part with them given his Massachusetts connection. I was so mad at him! Not only did he get the medals, but now he was bragging about how great they were.

Well, a few days later, he admitted that he told me about them to taunt me and to see if I was interested. Oh yes, you have got to love Scott’s sense of humor! Scott sold them to me at a fair price and now they proudly hang in my study.

We are honored to have the opportunity to speak with Robert Dalessandro. Many of his works are currently available through Amazon.com, including his newest work, Over There: America in the Great War, the current edition of the Army Officer’s Guide; American Lions: The 332nd Infantry Regiment in Italy in World War One; Willing Patriots: Men of Color in The First World War; and Organization and Insignia of the American Expeditionary Force: 1917-1923.

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