World War II veteran photographed his service, life


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Like millions of other young Americans, Eugene Donatelli had an opportunity to tour the world between 1941 and 1945, courtesy of Uncle Sam.

Unlike most of the other citizen-soldiers, Donatelli, a native of Beaver County, left behind an extensive photographic record of his military service in the United States and Asia.

"He always had a camera around his neck," his niece, Joyce Pacek of Harrison, recalled. She and her husband, Robert, spent part of a recent morning paging through two thick albums of her uncle's photographs.

Showing more foresight than most amateur photographers, Donatelli labeled each of his images, noting when each was taken and who was in the picture.

Between Nov. 21, 1942, when he entered the Army in Pittsburgh, and Dec. 29, 1945, when he arrived back home in Beaver County, Donatelli circumnavigated the globe. During his three-year, around-the-world journey, he traveled by train, troop ship, truck, paddle-wheel steamer and airplane.

Starting in 1954, he spent 49 years as a Capuchin brother, serving 14 years in Puerto Rico before returning to the continental United States in 1971 to work at what his order described as "a mix of apostolic and manual labors."

All that time, he continued to take photographs.

Before he died in 2003 at age 81, he had placed those photos in 21 large albums that were passed down to another of his nieces, Leah Martin of Rochester Borough.

Donatelli was born in 1922 in Rochester Borough, the youngest of eight children of an immigrant couple who came to Beaver County from the Abruzzi region of Italy.

His mother, Marta, died the year after he was born, and his father, Simone, remarried in 1926. His stepmother, Amelia, was an Italian-born widow with two children of her own. In a family biography that Donatelli wrote in 1986, he described her as a stern stepmother who was never accepted by some of her husband's children.

Donatelli attended public schools in Rochester Borough, graduating in 1940. Although he was ranked third in a class of 180 seniors, college was out of the question for financial reasons. He worked briefly at a hardware store and then at H.H. Robertson Co. in Ambridge. His tedious job, he wrote, consisted of putting felt washers on 1-inch bolts for eight hours a day.

War, draft notice arrive

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, he awaited his inevitable draft notice. He was sworn in on Nov. 21, 1942, and entered active service on Dec. 5, eventually attaining the rank of staff sergeant.

His papers include a timeline of his military training and postings over the next three years.

After basic training, he attended and graduated from teletype school in Omaha, Neb., in February 1943. Sent by train to the West Coast, he was assigned to the 422nd Signal Corps, which was stationed at several stateside Army camps. In November 1943, he and his Army buddies were loaded onto a troop ship, the USS Uruguay, "for a destination unknown to us."

After stops in Australia at Hobart and Perth, the 422nd disembarked at Bombay, India, the day after Christmas. A week later, the soldiers were on a five-day train ride across India to Calcutta, where they would serve at nearby Pandaveswar Airfield.

"Accommodations were strictly 4th class," Donatelli wrote of the railroad journey.

"Hard, wood-slatted seats running the length of the car -- which also served as bunks -- a hole in the jake room floor for toilet facilities, K-rations, roaches and a constant shower of soot and smoke bellowing from the coal-fired locomotive."

The reference to the "jake room" is a variation on "jakes," another word for toilet.

In the spring of 1944, the 422nd moved into territory that would become the nation of Bangladesh.

The soldiers then traveled by paddle-wheel boat up the Brahmaputra River into India's Assam Province and then into Burma.

His photos from that time include images of Buddhist temples damaged by fighting. "I took the risky chance of tramping through the bombed-out ruins, where there could have been booby traps left by Japanese soldiers, in order to make these shots," he wrote.

The 422nd was in the city of Bhamo in Burma, now Myanmar, when Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945.

In mid-July, Donatelli's unit was on the move again -- on the muddy Burma Road, headed toward Kunming, China. The 422nd had been flown to Liuchow, or Liuzhou, China, in early August.

"I don't remember setting up communications here; we just waited for the war to end," he wrote.

Japan formally surrendered on Sept. 2, 1945.

In October, the 422nd was flown over "The Hump," the name given to the eastern end of the Himalaya Mountains, to Calcutta.

On Nov. 28, Donatelli was on a troop ship called the General J.H. McRae. It went west through the Suez Canal and the Straits of Gibraltar and on to New York Harbor. The ship arrived in New York on Dec. 24, and he was discharged at Fort Indiantown Gap on Dec. 28, arriving home in Rochester Borough the next day.

"1,113 days around the world," he wrote.

Finding his vocation

After he finished his Army service, Donatelli worked at different jobs, including laying carpet for Gross Furniture Co. in Beaver Falls as part of a trade apprenticeship.

He also took classes at the National School of Photography in Silver Spring, Md. Mrs. Pacek recalled that her uncle at one point rented a pony and traveled to neighborhoods, taking pictures of children sitting on the horse and selling the images to their parents.

Donatelli's father had not been a practicing Roman Catholic, and he had sent his children to public schools and the First Baptist Church's Sunday school.

"Our entrance into the Catholic Church took place on our own initiative," Donatelli wrote in the family history. He and two of his older sisters received Catholic instruction from a Capuchin priest, the Rev. Sylvan Fondriest.

"When we were baptized and received our First Holy Communion, it was too late to cancel our shift to the Catholic Church."

Donatelli was 14 years old.

He was about to turn 30 when he entered the Capuchin Brothers Training Center in Cumberland, Md., in 1952, taking the name John the following year.

He took his first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Capuchin Franciscan Order in 1954 and his final vows in 1957.

During his 14 years in Puerto Rico, his assignments included stints as a cook, a sacristan and director of lay brothers.

When he returned to the mainland in 1971, he was assigned to a variety of duties at retreat houses, friaries and parishes in Export and Wheeling, W.Va.

He continued to attend reunions of his old Army unit -- and take pictures there. He also carried a camera to every family gathering and celebration, Mrs. Pacek said.

While his niece has his photo albums, the whereabouts of his negatives is unknown.

An even greater mystery is how he was able to shoot and develop so much film during his war service.

When his health worsened, Donatelli, then known as Brother John, was moved from his residence at the Vincentian Home to nearby UPMC Passavant in McCandless.

Family members and brothers from his order prayed with him while he was being treated for heart-related ailments and pneumonia.

He continued to enjoy watching Eternal World Television Network, which features Roman Catholic programs.

But he also was thinking about his photographs.

His niece remembers him asking about "My albums, my albums."

She assured him that her cousin would keep them safe.

neigh_west - neigh_north - neigh_east - neigh_south

Len Barcousky: lbarcousky@post-gazette.com or 724-772-0184. First Published September 26, 2013 4:00 AM


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