WWII Soldier Documented Own Life, Service Through the Lens


Eugene Donatelli, like most young American men at the onset of the Second World War, got to tour free around the world courtesy of Uncle Sam. However, unlike other drafted soldiers during WWII, he left a legacy that no other had –

He documented his life and service in the army through the lens.

he left behind a total of 21 albums all full of photographs of his war exploits — from his service in United States and in 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. And exhibiting more forethought compared to other amateur photographers, Donatelli each painstakingly labeled each of the image he took, making short notes on when he took each and who was in them.

Donatelli was drafted and entered into the Army in Pittsburgh on November 21, 1942 and was able to go home safely in Beaver County on December 29, 1945. Between those three years in the Army, he was able to circumnavigate around the world. He got the chance to travel by land via train, by sea through troop ship and paddle-wheel steamer and even by air via airplane.

From 1954, he spent 49 years of his life as a Capuchin brother and served in Puerto Rico for 14 years before returning to America in 1971 to work in “a mix of apostolic and manual labors” as his order described it.

All these times, he continuously took photographs.

before passing away in 2003 at the ripe age of 81, he placed the 21 albums which chronicled most of his life in the care of one of his nieces, Leah martin who resided in Rochester Borough.

Before the War

Eugene Donatelli was born to an immigrant couple from the Abruzzi region of Italy and was the youngest of eight brood. The whole family moved to Beaver County. In fact, he was born in Rochester Borough. His real mother, Martha, died just a year after he was born and his father got married again in 1926 to a widow with two children of her own. When he later wrote a family biography in 1986, he described his stepmother as someone stern and was not accepted by some of his siblings.

He studied in a public school and despite finishing third in a class of 180 seniors, college was not an option due to financial reasons. After high school, he took menial jobs.

At War

After the Pearl harbor attack on December 7, 1941, Donatelli waited for the imminent draft notice from the Army. Sworn in on November 21, 1942 and becoming active in December 5, his papers included a timeline of his training and assignments for the coming three years.

Going through basic training and graduating from a teletype school in Nebraska in 1943, he was shipped by train to the West Coast, assigned to the 422nd Signal Corps and in November of that same year, he boarded a troop ship, USS Uruguay, with his team heading to an unknown destination.

After stopping briefly at Hobart and Perth in Australia, they were again sent to Bombay, India and five days later, boarded a train that took them to their assignment – 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.”

Spring of 1944, the troop again moved to a part which will later turn out to be Bangladesh. They rode a paddle-wheel boat up the River of Brahmaputra so they could reach their destination – Burma. His images in this time included Buddhist temples ravaged badly by war.

“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.

His troop was in the place when the Germans surrendered in May 7, 1945. By the middle of July, Donatelli’s band was again on the move, this time heading for Kunming, China then on to Liuzhou, China. They were flown to Calcutta, then rode ship that took them to Suez Canal, Gibraltar and eventually home to new York. “1,113 days around the world,” he wrote at the end of his ‘war trip’.

After War

Donatelli drifted from one job to another after the war. he also took classes at the National School of Photography in Maryland and at one point, rented a horse, traveled to neighborhoods, took photos of the children in the area with the horse and sold those to the parents. Though his father was not a Roman Catholic and had even sent them to Sunday schools in the First baptist Church, he and two of his sisters became Catholics and received the church’s instructions from a Capuchin priest.

Shortly before his 30th birthday, he decided to enter the Capuchin Brothers Training Center in Cumberland taking the name John. In 1954, he took the order’s first vow on poverty, obedience and chastity and on 1957, the last.

Her then spent 14 years in Puerto Rico working as a sacristan, cook and a director of lay brothers. He returned in the Mainland in 1971. He continued to attend reunions of the Army unit he belonged to in WWII and took pictures every time he did so. Mrs. Pacek had also commented that Donatelli had carried a camera for every family event he attended and never seemed to get tire of taking pictures.

What puzzled them was how he was able to carry a camera and take pictures during his time in the war. A greater puzzle still is the whereabouts about the film negatives of the many photographs he took. The photo albums are with his niece though the negatives still need to be found.

When he got sick, for heart-related ailments and pneumonia, Donatelli kept on thinking about his photographs.

“My albums, my albums,” he constantly would say.

Mrs. Pacek assured him they are in safe hands.

-The Post-Gazette reports






Heziel Pitogo

Heziel Pitogo is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE