This large pillow featuring a large 32nd Division “Red-Arrow” was hand-crafted by Michaelina Wojewoda in memory of her son, Peter Wojewoda, who was killed in action during World War I.
During World War I, two million American soldiers were mobilized to Europe, many of them seeing some of the worst combat ever experienced by American soldiers. Behind every American soldier was a mother who raised him, and who saw him off to the most devastating war in human history. And in many cases, that mother was delivered the news that her son had died in action, with no further information past a location regarding his death being provided. These women became known as Gold Star Mothers, after the gold star on the son-in-service banners pinned in windows of mothers who lost a son overseas.
On August 27th, 1918, while fighting in Soissons during the Oise-Aisne campaign, with Company G, 126th Infantry Regiment, 32nd Division, Corporal Peter Paul Wojewoda was struck by a mortal wound that knocked him to the ground. As he was being loaded onto a stretcher, he’d confided in ambulanceman Thomas Caito to deliver his prayer kit, including a small book of prayers, a crucifix, a Catholic medal, and a rosary, to his mother. Before he could relay his mother’s name or address, Wojewoda succumbed to his wounds. Caito did accomplish this harrowing task, but as the result of one unbeknownst issue, it would take him fifteen years.
Peter Wojewoda and his mother, Michaelina.
Peter Paul Wojewoda was born in Detroit, Michigan on December 23rd, 1897, to & Valentine & Michaelina Wojewoda, both first-generation German immigrants. At the age of 18, Wojewoda served along the Mexican Border in 1916 with the Michigan National Guard, “A young Packard Motor Car tool-grinder setting out to end the iniquities of Villa.”
On July 15th, 1917, at the age of 19, Peter enlisted in the Michigan National Guard, but not before changing his last name from Wojewoda to Wortz. He enlisted as “Peter Paul Wortz”, and was later assigned to Company G, 126th Infantry regiment, 32nd Division. The 32nd Division was made up of National Guardsmen from Michigan and Wisconsin. He went overseas as a Corporal on February 17th, 1918. Corporal Wortz saw fierce combat in the Alsace defensive sector, the Aisne-Marne Offensive, and the Oise-Aisne Offensive.
Men of the 2nd Bn. 126th Infantry regiment assembling in a wheat field preparatory to an attack near Coutmont, 1 Aug. 1918.
Frank F. Shultz, a cook in Peter’s company, recalls speaking to him just before going over the top on the day of his death. Peter had just recently recovered from a shrapnel wound to the finger. As Peter was helping Schultz, an officer approached and asked “Well, how about it, Corporal? Do you think you’re fit to go on up?” Peter had said that he sure thought he was, wiggled his finger to show how it had healed, and waved goodbye to Schultz.
While his company was moving past the commune of Juvigny, Soissons, France, on August 27th, 1918, Peter was struck by enemy fire and fell to the ground. As he was being attended to by Thomas Caito of Ambulance Company 125, he entrusted him with his prayer kit to deliver to his mother. “Get this to my mother – somehow, soldier.” His final words. He was 20 years old at the age of his death.
Peter P. Wortz’ Burial Card, documenting the circumstances & logistical information surrounding his death.
Thomas Caito had arrived in France as part of an automatic replacement draft two months prior on June 29th, 1918. Men in these drafts would be distributed amongst casualty-heavy regiments across the American Expeditionary Forces. Caito ended up assigned to Ambulance Company 125, 107th Sanitary Train, 32nd Division. Caito was working with his company during the Oise-Aisne Offensive when he was confided in by Peter Paul Wortz.
Caito agreed to deliver the prayer kit, proceeding onward with his ambulance company to the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. After the war, when Caito went to find Wortz’ mother, he couldn’t find her, due to Peter having changed his last name from Wojewoda to Wortz. Fifteen years passed, Caito moved around and had to temporarily abandon the search, before finally appealing to the American Legion by mail to find her. Through Mrs. Harry H. Haffner, of an American Legion auxiliary in St. Louis, Caito had found Peter’s mother. He shipped the prayer kit at once.
On December 22nd, 1933, 15 years after Wojewoda had fallen in battle, the prayer kit arrived at the home of Michaelina Wojewoda, on 2628 Theodore St., Detroit, Michigan. The front of the prayer book is discolored. Caito hopes that Mrs. Wojewoda won’t understand why, but it becomes glaringly obvious upon inspection.
Peter Wojewoda’s body was returned to the United States on January 1st, 1921. Two weeks before his body arrived home, his father passed away, leaving his mother without a husband & son. When Mrs. Wojewoda heard from Caito about her son’s prayer kit, she was ecstatic to finally receive the memento her son had left her all those years ago. “Pete asked me to give you these right before he died in action at Soissons. I have been looking for you ever since.”
Two days after receiving the prayer kit, while attending Sunday Mass on December 24th, 1933, Michaelina Wojewoda suffered a heart attack. She held on for two more days before passing away on Tuesday, December 26th, her last glance towards the prayer kit returned to her two days prior. She was buried on December 30th, between her son and husband. She was buried with her son’s prayer kit & crucifix delivered to her two days prior.
The story of Peter Wojewoda and his mother, Michaelina, has been lost to time, the only remnants of their story in newspaper clippings. This pillow sewn by Michaelina has been in my collection for a year and has become one of my centerpieces. I have displayed it with a printed photo of Michaelina with a photo of her son, and an original 32nd Division Son-in-Service banner. It is my hope that this article will help Americans remember Michaelina, Peter, and their World War I story.
Michael R. Santoro is a history researcher, preservationist, and World War I Antiquarian. He has been collecting World War I militaria for some seven years. He finished both bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University at Buffalo, New York, in Environmental Design & Architecture/Historic Preservation, respectively. He now runs his own historic research business, Santoro Military Researchers, providing quality, quick, and affordable military research.
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