Saturday, September 19, 2020

Person of the Week

Dan Garitta: Unearthing the Common Soldier’s Story


Stories from his World War II-veteran grandfather started Dan Garitta’s interest in preserving military history. Now he’s a co-founder of an ongoing military discussion group at the Hagaman Memorial Library and co-author of the book A Hometown Doughboy.

Photo courtesy of Daniel Garitta

Stories from his World War II-veteran grandfather started Dan Garitta’s interest in preserving military history. Now he’s a co-founder of an ongoing military discussion group at the Hagaman Memorial Library and co-author of the book A Hometown Doughboy. (Photo courtesy of Daniel Garitta )

As a co-founder of the military discussion group at the Hagaman Memorial Library in East Haven, Daniel “Dan” Garitta has met numerous veterans and individuals interested in and passionate about military history. But an encounter with Gordon Stevens, a veteran of World War II, has shaped Dan’s latest endeavor, co-authoring the book A Hometown Doughboy.

Dan’s desire to create awareness about Stevens’s uncle, World War I infantryman Ernest Stevens, was the impetus for connecting with his co-author, Vietnam naval veteran Don Johnson, to publish their book.

A Hometown Doughboy is a compilation of Stevens’s letters, transcribed by Dan, with photos and historical information from the 1919 302nd Regiments’ unit book.

“Once I met up with Don, it took us about a year to finish [the book],” Dan says. “When I was doing it by myself, transcribing the letters, it was so difficult…reading, typing…reading, typing. Having a partner is amazing.”

Don, who has published eight books, helped with organizing the information and layout work.

For Dan, publishing his first book is “a dream come true,” he says.

“For the longest time I always said I wanted to publish a book. I always wanted to make my mark in life,” he adds.

Dan met Gordon Stevens at the Hagaman Library about 10 years ago.

“Every month I would go, and I would see him” at the library’s military discussion group, Dan says. “We created a rapport.”

Stevens, who had a collection of souvenirs from his time in the military, offered them up to Dan, who had use for them as a part of his traveling military museum.

“I ended up borrowing [his World War II] patch collection. It was matted on a board, so I could display it,” Dan says. “We became very good friends. We would sit down and talk…about the [past] war[s] and what is going on in society.”

Dan’s passion for military history and caring for items that carried historical significance led Stevens to give him a shoebox of letters from his uncle.

“He pulls out a shoe box and says, ‘These are my uncle’s letters from World War I that he wrote when he was in the field,’” Dan says.

When Stevens said they were his to keep, Dan says, “I was shocked…I said, ‘I’m going to make sure I do something good with them.’”

Dan conducted research on Ernest Stevens’s World War I infantry division, finding the unit book.

“I found this book and I started reading it. I realized the book described everything that was in his letters,” Dan says.

Stevens’s letters gave a more personal account to the more factual unit book.

“It’s like you’re there with him,” Dan says. “You are really brought back 100 years and you can picture what is happening…He really did see everything that [the unit book] is talking about…but his letters go into more detail. He talks about what they personally did…what they went through.”

Giving readers an opportunity to hear from Stevens, rather than a commander, was one of the biggest rewards for Dan.

“Everybody hears these stories about these well-known people, but the war was fought by the everyday, common person…and where is their voice?” Dan says.

The book represents “a voice for somebody who is no longer able to tell his story,” says Dan.

With A Hometown Doughboy, Dan aims to help create connections among veterans and young adults who are interested in history.

“I would like the younger kids to get a hold of this,” Dan says. “…I am hoping this book will influence the younger generation to be interested in our history and maybe go out and talk to a veteran…or a veteran [to] talk to a kid…pass down the stories…it’s really about preserving history so that future generations can learn and hear it.”

In addition to his book, Dan fulfills this vision by visiting schools, retirement homes, and other community-based groups, presenting a collection of military memorabilia.

A former middle school social studies teacher, Dan draws on years of experience in front of an audience.

“I loved talking, getting up and showing what I know and passing information on to people,” Dan says of his teaching career.

Dan started as a substitute teacher in 2006.

After graduating from Southern Connecticut State University, he became a full-time teacher in 2008.

Although he taught at various locations throughout New Haven County, his teaching philosophy was always the same: to reveal different ethnic, gender, and socioeconomic viewpoints.

“The kids got more out of it and I know that because after one of my first classes graduated…my students came up to me…they said, ‘Thank you for pushing us, for making us take all of those notes…for teaching us stuff that no other teachers taught us,” Dan says.

Although Dan has retired from teaching due to health issues, he has continued to find and bring to light stories of those who may be forgotten, with A Hometown Doughboy as evidence of it.

He encourages members of the community to contact him if they have military memorabilia that they are looking to dispose of.

“I encourage people not to throw things out,” Dan says. “[T]here are people out there that have a passion for [the memorabilia]. It might be the smallest item, but it still has a story.”

When Dan is not presenting on various military topics, he is an avid outdoorsman.

“In the summer, you will find me out in Guilford or Branford…fishing or crabbing in the rivers,” Dan says. “I’m a very big outdoors person…all I eat in the summer is food I grow or catch.”

It was time spent on the river with his paternal grandfather, a World War II veteran, that first sparked Dan’s interest in military history.

“He would tell me stories about his time in the military and fishing on Christmas Island and catching these 90- to 100-pound fish,” Dan says. “I didn’t believe him at first, but after he passed away, I found the photo.”

So, in turn, the voice of Dan’s grandfather echoes through each piece of memorabilia that Dan collects, and is even evident in the transcribed letters of Ernest Steven himself.

To get a copy of A Hometown Doughboy or to donate military items, contact Dan Garitta at 203-833-3142.

Elizabeth Reinhart covers news for Chester, Deep River, and Essex for Zip06. Email at .

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