The American military soldiers in World War I carried upwards of a hundred pounds of gear and ammunition. As a part of their equipment, they were issued a canteen for water, a Browning machine gun, and a gas mask. Their rifles weighed in at about nine pounds, and the weight has not really changed since. It seems that the military created these infantrymen to become pack mules. Nicandro Mazzarella, from Danielson, CT, was one of these infantrymen in World War I. From his draft registration card, we learn that he was of a medium height with brown hair and black eyes. When we think of the American military, we might assume that everyone is a United States citizen, but Nicandro lists himself as being a citizen of Italy. However, he had declared his intention to become a U.S. citizen. After coming to the States, he became a weaver and a farmer in Windham County in the town of Killingly.
To find out more about Nicandro Mazzarella, my class traveled to the Killingly Historical Society, which has a small museum. Imagine my surprise to discover a World War I bayonet, gas mask, canteen, and helmet that belonged to my soldier, Nicandro Mazzarella. I wondered how that gas mask could provide any protection for the soldier.
In my research about gas masks, I learned from Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum in St. Louis, that if the lenses of the gas mask have a yellow or orange tint they have seen combat. I also learned that all soldiers were issued a shaving kit which allowed them to stay clean-shaven, which made it easier for soldiers to fit their gas masks snugly over their faces.
Gas masks were necessary in World War I because of the German’s use of poison gases such as mustard and hydrogen. For decades after WWI, gas masks were rarely used. However, with the current threats of terrorism around the world, gas masks now are useful, practical, and popular again.
“United States World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918.” Database with images. FamilySearch. http://FamilySearch.org : 20 September 2016. Citing NARA microfilm publication M1509. Washington D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d. https://www.familysearch.org/search/collection/results?count=20&query=%2Bgivenname%3ANicandro~%20%2Bsurname%3AMazzarella~%20%2Bgender%3AM&collection_id=1968530
Author by permission of the Killingly HIstorical Society