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How a Rifle Unlocked the Stories of America’s WWII Veterans

Posted on Saturday, November 11, 2023
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M! Garand Rifle used by military veterans

Andrew Biggio was excited to show his neighbor, a WWII veteran, the M1 Garand rifle he had recently purchased. The weapon was the most common rifle used in WWII, and Biggio thought his elderly neighbor would appreciate holding the gun. 

“When I put that rifle into his hands and he raised it into his shoulder and started waving it around the room and pointing and smiling, and we talked about the Battle of Okinawa for like three hours,” Biggio, a Marine veteran himself, recounts. 

Biggio was in awe of the stories his elderly neighbor had just shared with him. The rifle had not only triggered memories in the veteran’s mind, but acted like a microphone, propelling the man to describe his war experiences in detail. 

Biggio asked his neighbor to sign the rifle becasue he wanted to remember the stories he had just been told, and this gave Biggio the idea to find other WWII veterans and ask them to sign the M1 Garand rifle. 

Today, “I have 320 names on that rifle,” Biggio says. “You can’t even see the wooden stock. The whole rifle’s full of white ink names.” 

But the majority of the soldiers who have held the rifle have done much more than signed it, they described their war stories in detail while grasping the weapon, stories which Biggio has compiled into two book. 

His first book, “The Rifle: Combat Stories from America’s Last WWII Veterans, Told Through an M1 Garand,” was released in 2021 but could not hold all veteran stories. In September, Biggio released the project’s second edition, “The Rifle 2: Back to the Battlefield.” 

Biggio joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to share some of the stories of the WWII veterans he has had the privilege of meeting and writing about. 

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: It is my pleasure today to be joined by author and Marine veteran Andrew Biggio. Andrew, thanks so much for being with us today. I really appreciate it.

Andrew Biggio: Thanks for having me. It’s good to be in D.C.

Allen: Well, I’m really excited to talk about both of your books today and the story of the rifle, which is a story almost like I have never heard before. It’s super unique. But before we get into talking about that, I want to ask you just to share a little bit of your personal story, your background. You entered the Marines in 2006, correct?

Biggio: Yes.

Allen: Share a little bit about that experience for you and what compelled you to say, “I want to serve my country in this way.”

Biggio: I grew up in Boston my whole life, and Massachusetts is a very patriotic state in regards to veterans. A ton of Marines per capita, and that’s in the state. So I grew up with St. Patrick’s Day parades, Veterans Day parades, and seeing the veterans wearing those hats that said World War II, Korea, Vietnam was just something that always captivated me. I thought they were the most interesting people in the world. I didn’t care about professional sports, things like that. I just really wanted to be a veteran. That was it.

And this was in a world before 9/11. This was peace time in the ’80s, the ’90s, and times I think we all miss today. And I think what solidified me wanting to join the military is I think a lot of kids my age had our youth robbed from us when we were seeing the Twin Towers burning on television, people jumping out of the buildings. And I think I was in eighth grade when I saw two people holding hands and they jumped out of the South Tower of the World Trade Center.

I think that that’s when it solidified, like, I need to go serve. That was kind of my Pearl Harbor, and I think that’s where it started as far as military service for me.

Allen: And during your time serving, you served both in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Was military service what you expected or thought it would be?

Biggio: Yes. Marine Corps boot camp especially was definitely a little bit more overkill than I thought it was. It really shook you to the soul. For me as an 18-year-old kid who had never left home, kind of a mama’s boy I guess, that was rough. I had combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan as my drill instructors, and grabbing you by the collar of your shirt or your throat and screaming. That’s the kind of stuff that it definitely matured you real quick.

Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, it was exactly what I expected. But the amount of training I had, by the time you even got to Iraq and Afghanistan, you felt pretty elite. You had a lot of training, three months solid of training in scenarios of being in Iraq or Afghanistan with role players, with scenarios, with guys who’ve been through it all. So when you get there, you’re ready for worst-case scenarios. You’re ready for World War III. But in Afghanistan in particular, we were so dominant as U.S. Marines.

People were too even petrified to admit they were Taliban, you know? They would do motor attacks or IEDs [improvised explosive devices] and run away, that kind of thing. And so, it really shocked me to see how Afghanistan turned out in the end run.

Allen: I can’t imagine, having served there, to then watch what has happened. How have you dealt with that and processed that?

Biggio: It hurts, it hurts. And I think any veteran in Afghanistan tells you that they don’t care is probably lying because you took away years of your life to go serve, to be over there, whether you were a chef cooking on a base or if you were in the infantry. You took away time from your family. Took away blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps, you had an even worse case where you lost a friend or a comrade. And to see the bad guys pretty much in control of the country again, that’s a rough hit. It’s tough.

And I guess, when I used to meet Vietnam veterans, of course I had utmost respect for them, but in the back of my mind, I would say, “Oh, these poor guys.” I would say that in the back of my head. And now, I guess I became a Vietnam veteran overnight in a way.

Allen: How many years did you serve?

Biggio: Six years.

Allen: Now, one of the things that happened after you got home was you came across a rifle. Talk a little bit about that rifle, when you found it, why you decided to buy it.

Biggio: So, I had a little bit of survivor’s guilt because the man I was named after was killed in combat. My grandfather’s brother, my uncle, was killed in action in World War II. His name was Andrew Biggio. My name is Andrew Biggio. I am named after him.

So I did feel bad that this 19-year-old kid never got to start his life, was killed in action, never got to have a family, never got to go to college, never got to have kids, happiness. Goes from high school and gets killed within a matter of months of fighting in Italy with the 34th Division. And that kind of ate me up because what happened to him, that didn’t happen to me, you know?

Why did he die and I lived? And how can I do the most with his name, my namesake?

And I remember my grandmother telling me she had saved some letters that he wrote him before he was killed. And I went in the shoebox one day under her bed and I pulled those letters out and the first letter I pulled out was, “Dear Mom, today we fired the M1 Garand rifle. It’s a new rifle of the time. It’s going to be better than the Japanese or the Germans’ rifle. I loved shooting it today at basic training.”

He’s writing this long letter to his mother about this rifle. And I said, “Holy cow, I need to go get my hands on an M1 Garand rifle. I want to feel what he felt. I want to hold what he held. I want to connect with this long lost relative, this kid who had this piece of equipment when he died.” So I went out and bought one.

Allen: Where did you find it?

Biggio: The journey starts there. This particular one I ordered from a gun store in Arizona. It was shipped to my house. And when I opened it up and held it and felt it, it was like my eyes—my eyes are watering now thinking about the feeling. Little did I know what would happen when I brought it to my neighbor.

Allen: What did happen?

Biggio: So, Joe Drago, 6th Marine Division, Okinawa veteran, Battle of Okinawa, one of the worst battles of the World War II, and he was 92 at the time when I brought this rifle to his house.

I wanted to see what he thought, wanted him just to see what memories it brought back. And I walked into his house and he was bound to his reclining chair. He was skinny. He was feeble. He was old. He was 92 years old, not getting much exercise. I put this rifle into his hands. He’s hunched over at this point. And when I put that rifle into his hands and he raised it into his shoulder and started waving it around the room and pointing and smiling, and we talked about the Battle of Okinawa for, like, three hours.

And soon enough, I forgot about the survivor’s guilt. I forgot about being stressed as a police officer. I forgot about everything. I’m bonding with this guy, and I said, “Sign your name on this rifle. I always want to remember this moment.” And he was so hesitant. He’s like, “I don’t want to mark up such a beautiful weapon.” And I’m like, “Just sign it, Joe. I always want to remember this.” Because I knew he wasn’t going to be around forever. I knew this was going to be a race against time when I saw his condition, right?

So I did my own military service. I went to college. I became a police officer. Get on the police force. And then I realized, seeing his condition, we had not much time left with any World War II veterans. So I said, “Sign your name on that.” I wanted to preserve his legacy, and he did. When I left his house, I looked down at his name on the rifle, said, “Joe Drago, 22nd Marine Regimen, 6th Marine Division, Okinawa.” And I said, “That was awesome. I need to get as many signatures as possible.”

And right here, to this date, six years later, I have 320 names on that rifle. You can’t even see the wooden stock. The whole rifle’s full of white ink names. I represented every battle, every branch of service from soldiers from basic, you could be a cook, a sailor, to Medal of Honor recipients, Navajo code talkers, Tuskegee Airmen, Japanese Americans who fought in Italy, guys who landed on D-Day, everything.

Allen: It’s incredible. So you have used this rifle to gather stories, to collect stories, and then obviously, you have put these stories in both of your books. Your first book, “The Rifle: Combat Stories From America’s Last World War II Veterans,” now this brand-new book that just came out in September, The “Rifle 2: Back to the Battlefield.”

How do you find the veterans? How do you find those that you want to share their stories? And what is their reaction when they hold that rifle in their hands?

Biggio: So, when I got Joe’s name—and he fought in the Battle of Okinawa—I said, “Well, now I got to get someone who fought in Europe.” Right? “And now I’ve got to get a guy who was in a B-17 bomber. And now I’ve got a guy who was on Iwo Jima who might have saw the flag raising.” So to hunt them down, I kind of searched by what units they served in, where they were stationed during the war.

So, in particular, I’ll tell you how I found—so because my uncle was killed in Italy, I said, “I wonder if there’s any survivors from his division or unit that were with him that day.” So I looked. How I started finding men from the 34th Division was I pulled the after-action reports from their division fighting in Italy.

These reports, I think, became declassified in the early 2000s. You can get them on the internet now. It has the men’s names of who was killed on certain days, who was captured, who was wounded, who earned Medals of Valor.

And I started taking those names, putting them into Google search engines, Whitepages, Yellow Pages, and then of course Find a Grave, obituaries to see if they were dead, alive. And some of the men were alive. Some of the men I cold-called them on the phone. If I heard an old voice on the end, I’d say, “Hello sir, I have this rifle I want to bring to your house.” And they’d just hang up on me. They’d think I was some scam artist.

So I would take photos of the rifle, photos of me in the military, photos of other World War II veterans who signed the rifle, mail it to their house. “Dear sir, I’m not a scam artist. I just want to preserve your story. My uncle was killed with your unit.” Sure enough, I’d get a letter back. “I’d love to take part in this project. It’s an honor.”

I think of the 320 veterans that signed the rifle, I only had two that didn’t partake, and I think the two that didn’t were just really close to end of life and didn’t want any visitors, that kind of thing.

Allen: Among all of the World War II veterans that you have spoken with and you’ve had the honor of sitting down with, sharing their stories in your books, is there one story that really sticks with you that maybe you continue to think about on a pretty regular basis?

Biggio: I use this example a lot because people say, “Well, it’s great that you got 320 names on your rifle, but what made you want to write the book? What stories?”

And I was visiting a man in Gardner, Massachusetts, and his name was Clarence Cormier. And his family said, “Well, I don’t think Dad’s going to talk about it, but you can meet with him.” And Clarence was with the 106th Infantry Division during World War II.

And for those that don’t know about that division, they had one of the biggest surrenders since the American Civil War. They had to surrender 7,000 men at the Battle of the Bulge. They were one of the first hit units, first overrun. Clarence was literally in Europe for two weeks and then he became a prisoner of war. He didn’t even get to fire a shot.

So here’s a guy who could have lied to me, told me he fought valiantly to his last bullet, and I would have ate it up because I wasn’t there and it was 75 years ago. But he sat there and he cried to me on his couch about being captured, about getting put in a boxcar, a train, by the Germans. He was so tight inside the train, crushed up against other prisoners of war.

The train started heading toward Germany once they were captured in Belgium. Two American fighter planes, P-47s, see this German train and they start strafing it. Little do they know they’re killing their own men, that there’s thousands of American prisoners. And he’s telling me this story and he’s crying his eyes out, age 95, and I said, “Oh my God, I’ve never seen a 95-year-old man weep like this.” I was so taken aback.

And they broke out of the train. They got on the ground. And with their bodies, they formed the letters POW, standing for “prisoner of war.” So when the planes were coming around again to do another strafing, they saw the letters that said POW and they pull up last second. And Clarence delivers this emotional testimony about this incident. Oh my God. The tears rolling down his face. This is when I decided to put pen to paper.

His daughter grabbed me and said, “I always knew my father was a prisoner of war, but I’ve never heard him say that story.” And I said, “I have to do more than just collect names for a cool item in my man cave. I need to write these stories.”

I went from an average C student to a bestselling author somehow with this.

AllenWell, it’s incredible. And I think so many of us had had those thoughts cross our mind of family members who have served. And it is something that’s so emotional for so many folks who have served. That it is hard, I know, to open up and share. But it seems like there’s something really powerful about, for one, speaking to a fellow veteran, but then also holding that object of the rifle in their hands.

Biggio: Sure. The rifle acted as a microphone. It acted as a time machine.

And you know what’s funny now? They used to hold it, look at the rifle, and go, “Wow, I fired this in basic training. I can’t believe that I carried this when I was 19.” Now they sit there and they stare at the other names and the locations that guys have written on the rifle, like Pearl Harbor, Normandy, and they’re infatuated with all these men, and they’re looking at all their buddies now.

Now, that’s something I never brought up in other podcasts or interviews, is that when these veterans look at the names now and they know they’re only one of 150,000 World War II veterans left in the country, they’re seeing all their buddies on that rifle.

Allen: I encourage all of our listeners, check out the website, https://thewwiirifle.com/ to learn more. Pick up a copy of both books and learn the stories.

But thank you, Andrew. Thank you for your time today, for your willingness, and for your willingness to share stories that otherwise would be lost in history.

Biggio: Thank you.

Reprinted with permission from The Daily Signal by Virginia Allen.

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Rik
Rik
7 months ago

We as a Country MUST NEVER FORGET THE SACRIFICES of OUR VETERANS who served to PROTECT THIS COUNTRY!!!

Max
Max
7 months ago

I have read several articles in various WW II history magazines of what Mr. Andrew Biggio has been doing in getting WW II vets to sign this M 1 rifle. I give him praise for honoring the veterans.

David Millikan
David Millikan
7 months ago

Excellent article.

Donna
Donna
7 months ago

Thank you to all our veterans who have served, and to our current military members who are serving today. God bless you and God bless America.

Lyn Kline
Lyn Kline
6 months ago

Outstanding

spitfire?1940
spitfire?1940
7 months ago

Hey Greg,name the lies for all of us that believe that the Holy Bible is the word of God.GOD DOES NOT LIE.NOW THE QUESTION BEGS, HAVE YOU READ THE BIBLE FROM COVER TO COVER?

spitfire?1940
spitfire?1940
7 months ago

Thus Fred Flintstone preserving you rights under the First Amendment to spout your childish and pathetic garbage for conservatives to shake our heads at.

spitfire?1940
spitfire?1940
7 months ago

Great story .My own son joined THE USMC at 17.5 y o a and served I Afghanistan.He was in combat of course and came home safely.He then went to college. He too is now a police officer and was recently selected to be a SWAT team member in N W Washington State.To say I’m proud of him would be an understatement.From an RAF vet.(Cold war)

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