I grew up hearing about my World War I war hero great-grandfather, Michael Valente, and feel a very deep connection—even though I never met him.
But despite all the stories my family knew about Michael’s wartime courage and his life in New York, we were still faced with a 100-year mystery: What was his life like in Italy, before he came to America?
The World War I Hero
What we’ve always known about my great-grandfather Michael is that he never backed down from a challenge.
He bravely traveled to America from Italy alone and started his life here working as a mason in upstate New York. He joined the New York Guard in about 1916.
And shortly after, when the US entered World War I, his regiment was nationalized and became a part of the U.S. Army. He went down to train in South Carolina and before long deployed to France, making the courageous decision to fight for his new country.
During the final months of the war, his unit was participating in an assault on a vulnerable part of the massive German defensive position, known as the Hindenburg Line. The Hindenburg line, stretching 90 miles, was seemingly impenetrable and was viewed as one of the keys to victory.
The Allies were unable to break through until September 29, 1918, when Michael decided to take action.
While his men were taking heavy machine gun fire from the Germans, he ran towards the gun fire through an open field, silenced two machine gun nests, and attacked a trench. He was wounded on his wrist, but not before he managed to breach the Hindenburg Line and take twenty-one prisoners.
It was a task no one would have expected Michael to survive. His actions contributed greatly to the breaking of the Hindenburg and the German retreat—and to the end of the war less than two months later.
For all his bravery, my great-grandfather was a very humble man, even when describing his act of valor to my Dad. He said that when he saw his friends getting hurt, he got really pissed off and he felt like he had to do something to help.
I learned from the official citation just how he acted “without regard for his own safety” and sacrificed his safety for others.
But it wasn’t until a trip to France, where my dad and I visited the battlefield on the 100-year anniversary of Michael’s act of valor, that I realized what a truly incredible feat he performed.
The Man Behind the Medal of Honor
Thanks to my dad, I learned a lot about my great-grandfather and the life he lived after he returned from the war and how he built his own American Dream with his family.
Upon his return, Michael settled in New Jersey and got a degree in electrical engineering from Newark Technical School. He met my great grandmother Margherita and moved to Long Beach, New York to start a family.
Michael worked for the City of Long Beach in various capacities before becoming City Marshall. He was a pillar of the community and loved by many.
He rode his bike every day on the boardwalk, played cards with neighborhood kids—including my mother who grew up next door—and remained extremely involved with veterans‘ organizations.
Today when you drive into my hometown, you cross the Michael Valente Memorial Bridge, the only bridge into Long Beach. There’s also a big sign that the Chamber of Commerce erected proclaiming Long Beach as the home of Michael Valente.
And there’s even a Michael Valente Day celebrated September 29th, commemorating the day of his heroism, that helped bring about the end of the war.
But beyond all that, my great-grandfather was a man who fiercely loved his family, friends, and city.
In Long Beach, he owned a construction company and built houses in the community. He owned a fair amount of real estate, but during the Great Depression he lost all but one house. He was able to keep that home and still raise a big family. That house is still owned by my family and represents his fierce love of family to me.
When Michael’s daughter, my grandma Mary, was widowed very young, Michael took her and my father in, raising him not only as a grandfather but as a father. When Mary’s sister, my great aunt Josephine, also became widowed, he moved her and her children into the house as well.
When my dad was growing up in the house with Michael, he just saw his grandpa. It wasn’t until he became an adult that he saw Michael as the war hero he is.
Facing Adversity in America
Like many Italians in the U.S. back then, Michael faced discrimination and adversity. It actually took until 11 years after the end of the war for my great-grandfather to be awarded his Medal of Honor.
And he was the only recipient of the medal in World War I to be of Italian origin. As documented in The Long Way Home, by David Laskin:
“The Italian American press went crazy with pride. One dazzled reporter, begging Mike for a message to convey to the Italian American community, got this response:
‘Tell them this in my name: I’m happy that the duty I carried out in the war gained such high recognition in Washington yesterday. Say that I did not forget, while the president of the republic was conferring the Congressional Medal, that he had decorated an American of Italian origin. Proud of these origins, happy that through him honor can come to the entire mass of Italians who emigrated here, of which I am a humble part’.”
Michael overcame any discrimination he faced with dignity and pride. He was extremely proud to be Italian-American.
A 100-Year Mystery Solved
Our family story for Michael starts in New York, but that’s not where his story began.
We were faced with a 100-year mystery: How did he get to America? What drove him to leave his family behind?
My dad had gone to Ellis Island to try to find out if my great-grandfather Michael came through there. And he found my great-grandmother’s records, but not my great-grandfather’s.
It was my dad leading the charge as the family historian, but I was excited to go along with him.
Meanwhile, as a scientist, I was very intrigued by the idea that our DNA could hold clues to our family origins. So when I heard about AncestryDNA®, I was excited to take the test, and see what I could find.
I could see from our photos that my ancestors and I had a lot of similarities; what traces of them would I be able to see in my DNA?
My results showed really cool insights like the migration path from Europe to America and the approximate years of migration. “How did they find that?” I thought.
For me that was a first taste of what I could find beyond what I’d known growing up. Then Ancestry® shared with me and my dad a record they found, a ship manifest that showed Michael Valente as a passenger.
And suddenly we knew! We knew how Michael got to America, the name of the ship he was on, what port he arrived in. We even know he got here with $30 in his pocket. He was only 18!
At 18, I was a college freshman trying to figure out my major. And yet at that age, Michael had left his home of Sant’Apollinare, a small town an hour and a half from Rome, his family, and everything he had ever known—forever. He never returned to Italy.
For my dad, finding that record meant so much, to have that piece of the story rounded out. I never expected how much of an impact it would have on him, but seeing him so speechless I knew that this was something he had been searching for, for a long time.
For me, it was powerful, but it made me want to learn more, to go farther back to learn what Michael’s life was like. What made him leave his family, striking out on his own, across an ocean, with almost no money and no family or friends?
Finding More Pieces of My Family Puzzle
When I was 15, we actually traveled to my great-grandfathers’ hometown. We even found the house where he lived and met the home’s current residents, who are distant Valente descendants.
The trip was so meaningful but also left me with more questions—questions like, “Why would he leave such a beautiful place?”.
I’d love to continue to find records of Michael’s family in Italy. I know he had a sister who came to the U.S. and settled in Rhode Island. Other than that I know very little about her story.
I may never know all the answers. But every discovery is like a little piece of the puzzle, part of the story I hope to one day pass on to my future family to keep this history and Michael Valente alive.
If I were called upon to give a speech about Michael Valente, I would probably say something like,
Michael Valente lived a unique version of the American dream. It wasn’t the white picket fence version, but he came here to start a new life in this country, and he really fought for it. He was selfless and brave and went from having nothing in Italy to shaking hands with U.S. presidents. He showed me with his actions that the people you love are worth fighting for with every bit of your soul.
I feel a responsibility to know all of Michael’s story, to take the torch from my dad to ensure Michael Valente’s legacy lives on.
Ancestry has helped me keep up this momentum and I’m excited for even more discoveries.
Who Are the Heroes in Your Family?
We’ve all got heroes in our family trees—whether it’s a war hero or a pillar of the community who fought to build a better life for themselves and those around them.
About the Author: Kathryn Madalena grew up in Long Beach and Rockville Centre, New York. She is currently a PhD Candidate in Neuroscience at The Ohio State University. She and her dad Ralph are Ancestry customers who shared the story of their ancestor Michael Valente briefly in a couple of Ancestry TV commercials, but this is her first time sharing her story in writing, along with her amazing family photos.