Marine Corps Vietnam combat veteran Paul Mendes suggested that we do a Memorial Day story about Staff Sgt. Jesse Arnold Silva. He said that Silva, a paratrooper, was the first Provincetown soldier to be killed in World War II. Paul’s late father-in-law, Joseph Andrews, a World War II veteran, told him that Silva had been killed in the worst friendly fire incident in American military history, over Gela, Sicily in July 1943, when 2,000 paratroopers of the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment were killed by American anti-aircraft gunners.
But is that how Silva died? We set out to find the story.
Paul and I met at the Catholic graveyard on Friday morning in search of Silva’s grave. The stone was hard to see, with mold forming on its surface and grass growing tall in front. I gently removed the grass and read the inscription: “Jesse A Silva, Massachusetts, S/Sgt 509 Parachute Infantry Regiment.” That disposed of the friendly fire story: Silva was in the 509th, not the 504th.
I headed down to Jesse Arnold Silva Square at the corner of Bradford and Howland streets, where I found the Mildred S. Greenfelder (East End) Playground. With the help of folks from the East End Market, I discovered a hard-to-see brass marker surrounded by brightly colored direction signs. It read simply “Jesse A Silva.” No one at the market had ever noticed it before, including an employee who had worked there for 20 years.
The physical markers designed to preserve Silva’s memory were as obscured by time as Paul’s father-in-law’s memory.
Who was Silva, then, and when and where was he killed? The military history archive of the Provincetown History Project and U.S. Army World War II databases provided some answers.
A Feb. 26, 1944 Provincetown Advocate article headlined “Cape-tip Paratrooper Is Killed in Action on Italian Front” reported that a Mrs. Malaquias had received a letter from Silva in which he wrote, “I’m somewhere in Italy, I think.” Sometime later, Silva’s parents, then living in New Jersey, sent her a telegram announcing their son’s death. The article gives Feb. 1 as the date of death.
According to Army history, Silva’s regiment was part of the amphibious assault at Anzio, Italy, parachuting in to support the larger troop landing: “Despite being overrun and incurring heavy casualties, the 509th helped prevent the enemy from overwhelming the Allied beachhead. For its actions, the 509th won a Presidential Unit Citation.”
All but 48 paratroopers received the citation posthumously. Silva’s body was returned to Provincetown in 1948, where it lay in state at town hall for a day before being taken to St. Peter’s Church for his funeral.
I write this to help dissipate the fog of time that obscures our knowledge of Jesse Silva’s sacrifice for our country and community. As I reflect on his story, the question of whether he was killed by friendly fire seems irrelevant. Even if that were true, his intentions, commitment, and courage would in no way be diminished. I wonder what other stories are partly revealed but mostly concealed behind the monuments large and small of Provincetown.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article, published in print on May 26, incorrectly referred to Paul Mendes’s father as the source of the story about friendly fire. In fact, it was Mendes’s father-in-law, Joseph Andrews, a decorated World War II Navy veteran who Paul always refers to as “my father.”