Andrew Biggio’s basement at his Winthrop home has been converted into a museum-of-sorts with display cases of war memorabilia, artifacts and other keepsakes he’s collected since serving his tours of duty as a US Marine in Iraq and Afghanistan. Biggio, who founded the Boston Wounded Vet Ride that would roar through East Boston and Revere every year to raise money for wounded vets, is busy organizing a countertop stacked with autographs of the 22 World War II veterans that have been immortalized in his first ever book.
“There are people who got the book and want an autograph of one of the vets that appears,” explains Biggio.
With a book tour and book signings on the immediate horizon Biggio says this is the best way to ensure readers get an autograph of one of the vets that appears in the book.
“We just don’t know how much longer they’ll be around,” he says.
According to the US Department of Veterans Affairs statistics, 325,574 of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II are alive but around 296 die every day in the US.
In a race against time, Biggio began a quest five years ago to get as many World War II veterans on the record from across the US and from every branch of the military and tell their story.
The result was “The Rifle: Combat Stories from America’s Last WWII Veterans, Told Through an M1 Garand,” which was released on Amazon last week and quickly became the #1 best selling United States Military Veterans History book on the website.
The idea from the book stemmed from his experience returning home from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I served in Iraq and Afghanistan and I came home and I’m pretty confident I’m okay, I’m fine,” said Biggio. “What bothered me was coming to Winthrop every day and seeing that Andrew Biggio Square sign. It’s not dedicated to me, but to my grandfather’s brother, who was killed in World War II and I’m named after him. So to see a sign that says Andrew Biggio Memorial Square just made me feel really bad for that Andrew Biggio. So I began to ask, What happened to him that didn’t happen to me. I really started asking questions about this poor 19 year old kid from Winthrop who was killed in Italy in 1944.”
Biggio remembered his grandmother saying she had saved letters from her late brother-in-law that he wrote home before he was killed.
“So I went into a shoe box at their bedside and began reading the letters,” said Biggio. “One of the first letters he talked about how much he enjoyed the M1 Garand rifle. So I immediately ran out and bought one because I wanted to hold it. I want to connect to this long lost relative and feel what he felt holding that rifle.”
While showing friends and relatives his new purchase Biggio said they didn’t seem that impressed with the World War II relic so he had an idea.
“I figured I’d do one better and bring it to a Marine I knew who lived in West Roxbury,” said Biggio.
Biggio headed over the Westie with the rifle to visit 91-year-old Joe Drago.
“So I knocked on his door and I noticed he had gotten really skinny, his legs were atrophied and he was bound to a recliner, like most men in their 90s,” he said. “But when I put the rifle into his hands to show him what I got, I got a totally different reaction than everyone else. He puts it to his shoulder, he’s waving it around, he’s aiming and he’s talking endlessly about the rifle, So that’s what I knew I was on to something because I just saw this 91 year old man become a 19 year old kid again.”
So Biggio had Drago sign the rifle’s stock because he didn’t want to ever forget the moment.
“We talked about his participation in the Battle of Okinawa for about two hours and after I left his house I looked down at the rifle and I was hooked,” said Biggio. “I decided right there and then I wanted to get as many signatures on this rifle as possible. If Joe Drago was a little taste of the Pacific I wanted to get a guy who fought in Europe next and then Italy.”
For the next five years, with the rifle in tow, Biggio visited every corner of the US seeking WWII vets willing to talk about their experiences in the war and sign the one thing that bound them all together.
“I was very careful to let them know this wasn’t going to be a book that glorifies war,” said Biggio. “Some of the guys signed the rifle but wouldn’t hold it because they vowed they’d never hold a gun again after the war and those are some of the stories I wanted to hear. I wanted to hear the reasons why they felt that way because the younger generation of vets coming home can really learn a lot from this generation that is getting smaller and smaller by the day.”
So now that his research and work is complete and the book published after years of work, Biggio said he was really surprised by the reaction as it shot to #1 in its category on Amazon.
“Before it was released there was a lot of anticipation and anxiety,” said Biggio. “I knew I was doing good by bringing a lot of light to WWII veterans but to put a physical book out there that’s going to be looked at by other historians and authors who’ve already written multiple books about WWII was a little nerve wracking. But what makes my book a little different is that it’s really just a bond between a young veteran and the veterans of WWII. And for us, the young veterans, it’s really a way for us to learn from the older generation about the costs of war and life after war. Many in the book definitely hit bumps in the road but they bounced back, raised families and went on to live long, successful lives after war. Ultimately, it is proof that if they can go through the hell and carnage they went through and live as long as they did—we all can.”