As World War I raged in Europe a century ago, Salvator Cillis, a young Italian immigrant living on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, took a ride on the Long Island Rail Road on his way to basic training. His train was packed with Army troops bound for Camp Upton in Yaphank and left Penn Station to cheering crowds.
“When we reached Jamaica, we changed trains, and then the trip for real started,” wrote Cillis in a letter to co-workers at the M.R. Levy Sign Painting Co. in Manhattan that was dated Sept. 24, 1917. He and his fellow draftees watched bucolic Long Island unfold, as residents of each village along the line greeted them as the train passed. “They were all there giving us the hip-hip-hooray,” Cillis wrote. “Even the cows stopped from eating and smiled at us.”
While the view has certainly changed with the passage of 100 years, Cillis’ observations of Long Island have been preserved. Rendered in witty prose and charming illustrations (including a letter with a drawing of a cow smiling at the passing train from its pasture), they are now at the heart of an exhibition of World War I art at the New-York Historical Society.
In 1946, Morris Van Deen, one of the co-workers who received a letter, donated the collection of 19 letters and eight postcards to the historical society. Seven of the best — including the colorful watercolor of an epic snowball fight at Camp Upton — were selected for the current exhibit.
“Some of them are so appealing and simple that children can relate to them,” said Robin Jaffee Frank, art curator of the exhibit. “I’ve noticed children at this show, and they laugh at Sal’s letters.”
“World War I Beyond the Trenches,” which runs until Sept. 3 at the Society’s Central Park West museum, includes wartime images from famous artists such as John Singer Sargent and Georgia O’Keeffe. But it is Cillis’ illustrated letters — placed in their own display case in the center of the exhibit’s main room — that give visitors the best sense of what life was like for the average doughboy, as the members of the American Expeditionary Force were called.
“It’s really such a unique window,” said Mike Thornton, an associate curator at the historical society. “He chronicles his basic training in such a compelling, even fun way.”
Cillis was a private in the 77th Division and was at Camp Upton from September 1917 through the spring of 1918. Years later he would return to Long Island to live.
America had entered the so-called Great War just five months before Cillis’ arrival on Long Island, with President Woodrow Wilson’s Declaration of War against Germany on April 6. A frenzy of activity ensued.
“Everything had to be organized,” said Jonathan Casey, archivist at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. “Camps were built overnight.”
Two of the larger camps were on Long Island, in Upton and in Garden City, where Camp Mills was located.
In the swamps and pine forests of Yaphank, 1,500 buildings were erected to accommodate 30,000 draftees in a facility named after Gen. Emory Upton, who commanded a New York regiment during the Civil War. The then-remote area — it’s now the site of Brookhaven National Laboratory — became the training camp for the 77th, a division composed largely of draftees from New York City. The unit would eventually be known as the Statue of Liberty Division.
FLUENT AND EXUBERANT
Cillis was the second of nine children and emigrated from Italy in 1901 with his family when he was 9. They lived in a Mott Street tenement filled with other Italian immigrants. Although he had only a seventh-grade education, Cillis’ written English was fluent and conversational.
“He had a marvelous sense of humor,” said Frank. “But you feel when you read the letters that he was enthusiastically patriotic like the vast majority of immigrants who made up his unit.”
The young soldier hisses Imperial Germany’s reviled Kaiser Wilhelm as if he was an on-screen villain in a silent film. In a letter from February 1918 — accompanying a watercolor illustration of his unit on parade — Cillis writes about rumors that the 77th will soon be deployed to France. “But rumors here are as reliable as the Kaiser’s word of honor,” he notes acidly.
Cillis also holds no illusions of his comrades, whom he designates “The Bonehead Brigade.”
“A few are short, a great many tall,” he writes in one bit of doggerel. “And some haven’t a head at all.”
The way Cillis describes it, life at Camp Upton — at least in the first few weeks — involved little in the way of soldiering. “We exercise a little in the morning,” he wrote on Oct. 1. “They take us out marching in the afternoon, give a few lessons in military matters and so ends the days.”
Paul Infranco, a retired social studies teacher who has written and lectured on the history of Camp Upton, said this summer camp-like schedule was due to a lack of qualified instructors and equipment.
“That’s why the men did so much walking,” said Infranco, of Ridge. “They had to keep them busy, and the exercise certainly wouldn’t hurt.”
Later, with wartime production up to speed and English and French veterans of the trenches assisting in the instruction, the men at Upton were trained with rifles, bayonets and grenades. Although assigned to the 306th Field Artillery, Infranco said Cillis would have received the same basic infantry training as well.
During March and April 1918, the 77th was deployed. According to Casey, the trip involved sailing from New York to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where, as part of a massive convoy of ships, they zigzagged across the Atlantic to avoid German submarines. The troops took a train across England to Dover, then crossed the English Channel to France, where they were put back on trains that took them close to the front lines.
The 77th was the first division of draftees to arrive in France and would play a central role in the Army’s biggest and bloodiest campaign of the war: The Meuse-Argonne offensive, fought in the vast Argonne forest in northern France over the course of 47 days in the fall of 1918. As an artilleryman, Cillis would have been part of a five-man, 155-mm. gun crew that rained shells down on enemy trenches during the engagement, which turned out to be the final campaign of the war.
WAR DARKENS HIS WRITING
In France, Cillis’ letters changed. Instead of expansive and colorful, they are terse and stark, composed in a hurry on YMCA-issued letterhead and drawn in black and white.
“You can see his handwriting and illustrations get shakier,” Frank said.
Still, Cillis hasn’t lost his spirit, even when commenting on the anonymity of his part in the fighting. “We call the enemy Fritzzie,” he writes in September 1918, though he adds that “we never have seen one yet.”
So strong is the character that emerges through the letters that many at the historical society, like Frank, have taken to referring to Cillis by his first name.
“You get a sense of a guy you’d love to have a conversation with,” said Edward O’Reilly, curator of the historical society’s manuscript department. He calls the collection “as honest a set of letters as you’re going to find. There’s not a lot of pretension in them.”
Humble as he may have been in his letters to friends, Cillis apparently had grander ambitions for his career. After being discharged from the Army in 1919, he returned to the sign painting company, but in 1923 he applied for a passport to study art in Europe. He returned a year later. The 1940 U.S. census finds him a 47-year-old bachelor living on University Avenue in the Bronx, and still working as a sign painter.
At some point, Cillis moved to Central Islip. He died in 1966, at the age of 72, and is buried in the Long Island National Cemetery in Pinelawn. The historical society was unable to find any descendants. Although not a relation of Cillis as far as he knows, Daniel Cillis of Rockville Centre, a business professor at Molloy College, said that most of those with his surname came from the Italian province of Potenza.
No one knows whether it was space, affordable housing, the area’s connection with the great adventure of his youth or other factors that brought Cillis back to Long Island. Infranco said that many veterans who trained on Long Island returned to the area. One of them, Walter T. Shirley, became a prominent real estate developer who helped build the Suffolk County hamlet that bears his name.
Like Shirley, Cillis lived to see Long Island transformed from the sleepy rural region he first glimpsed from a train in 1917, into America’s great post-World War II suburb. Based on his writings as a young soldier, this — and by larger extension, the country’s success by midcentury — was something he would likely have been proud of.
“A lot of these [World War I veterans] sincerely believed they were fighting for a just cause, for liberty,” Casey said. “They used that word . . . liberty . . . all the time.”
Those feelings were particularly intense with immigrants like Cillis. Indeed, in December 1918, as his unit was ready to return home, he closed his last letter from France with an illustration of himself in his bunk, smiling in his sleep. Above him, in a thought balloon, is the Statue of Liberty.
The caption reads: “Last night I dreamt about her.”
The exhibit “World War I Beyond the Trenches” is timed to coincide with the centennial of the United States’ 1917 entry into the conflict. It features 55 artworks — paintings, letters, posters related to various aspects of the conflict as seen through American eyes. It is open until Sept. 3 and also includes works from the New-York Historical Society’s collection.
New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West(at 77th Street)
Teachersand seniors: $16
Children 5–13: $6
Children 4 and under: Free (Pay-as-you-wish Fridays from 6 to 8 p.m.)