Cpl. Peter Molinari, St. Helena native and World War I soldier, was honored at a meeting of American Legion Post 199 on Nov. 14.
Molinari (1894-1970) was a founding member of the Post in 1919. His Army uniform has been preserved in a purpose-built display case and is on loan (with his gas mask and helmet) to Post 199. His family lives on Mills Lane in St. Helena and four generations attended the dinner at which Molinari’s uniform was shown. Post 199 has awarded scholarships to his great grandchildren. Cpl. Molinari’s son, named Peter E., is a World War II veteran who served in the Army Air Force. Staff Sgt. Peter E. Molinari is a longtime member of Post 199.
David Molinari was probably the first Italian Swiss in Napa Valley when he arrived in 1872. He worked for W.W. Lyman as a foreman. After purchasing the Mills Lane property in 1899, he built the winery barn, Bonded Winery No. 955. The Molinari “Roman” beam press (based on a design used in Switzerland) is still there. A team of horses brought the log from Howell Mountain. David also built the crusher with help from a blacksmith.
David married Josephine Cavalli. In 1894, their son Peter was born. They lived at 458 Mills Lane, just as the family does today. Peter attended local schools and was a member of the St. Helena Catholic Church with his family. At 16 he had a job at the Schmidt Mercantile Store, which is now Vasconi’s Pharmacy.
On June 5, 1917 Peter was obliged to register for the draft as the U.S. considered entering the fray of the “Great War.” He asked for an exemption, which was denied, on the grounds that his parents were both sick and he had to take care of the farm. (His mother died in 1924 and his father in 1928.) He had brown hair and blue eyes, was of medium build.
The St. Helena Star notified the community that the draft numbers were assigned and on July 13, 1917 Peter learned his number was 1,225.
To pay for the war the federal government launched the “Liberty Loan” drive and each town was issued a quota. Liberty bond purchasers were listed in the newspaper and Peter subscribed in November 1917. St. Helena’s quota for the third loan was $110,000 minimum and bonds amounting to $162,950 were sold. “If your name is not on the “Honor Roll” of the third Liberty Loan get it there if possible and help win the war!” the Star exclaimed. As patriotic Americans, Peter, his uncle John and father David Molinari all donated.
St. Helena Catholic Church honored its soldier members in May 1918 with a handmade flag. In July 1918 Molinari departed for basic training at Fort Lewis, WA. He was assigned to Company B, 362 Regiment of the 91st Division (called the Pine Tree Division) and then went to France. The 91st departed New York Harbor on July 6 and arrived in England July 17 and in France July 25. The Star reported on July 26 “Peter Molinari has arrived safely “over there.”
Molinari wrote home in January 1919 saying he had been “over the top” four times — twice in France and twice in Belgium. This term, “over the top” was used by troops to describe the moment when they emerged from trenches and charged out over open land to attack the enemy. He came through without a scratch and wrote he was “feeling fine.”
Molinari came home from the war in June 1919. The Star reported that the St. Helena Catholic Church gave a social and dance to honor its soldier members. Peter and his brother David Molinari were both listed among the soldiers. Soon after F. Rossini of Pope Street gave another party, which Peter attended.
Peter Molinari took over the family ranch on Mills Lane. He grew prunes, walnuts and grapes. He was a founding member and president of the Silverado Coop Prune Dryer. He was also a founding member of the Lodi Farm Center, United Ancient Order of Druids, St. Helena Garden Club and charter member of the St. Helena Municipal Band.
Molinari married Ruby Heitz. Their children are Peter E. Molinari and Marilyn Molinari Froom.
About Peter’s uniform
On the right sleeve is a corporal stripe (chevron with two stripes); left sleeve at shoulder is 91st Infantry (Pine Tree) Division patch; red chevron is separation from active duty; near cuff, one overseas duty chevron (one for each six months overseas).
According to the U.S. Militaria Forum “the 91st Infantry Division insignia, a green fir tree, was emblematic of the Far West. The division is known as the “Wild West Division.” The division began leaving June 19, 1918, for overseas, the move continuing until early in July and was through Camp Merritt, Camp Mills, England and France. First units sailed July 6, 1918, and the last units arrived in France July 26, 1918.”
On the left breast is the World War I Victory Medal with three battle clasps: Ypres-Lys, Meuse-Argonne, and Defensive Sector. The Victory Medal was awarded to military personnel for service between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918.
Peter fought in the Ypres-Lys Offensive of World War I, which took place from Aug. 19 to Nov. 11, 1918, part of the larger Hundred Days Campaign, was launched to liberate Belgium and parts of northeast France.
He also took part in the Battle of Meuse-Argonne Sept. 29 to Nov. 11, 1918, the largest and bloodiest operation of World War I for the American Expeditionary Force (AEF). According to Wikipedia, “It was the deadliest battle in American history. U.S. losses were exacerbated by the inexperience of many of the troops, the tactics used during the early phases of the operation and the widespread onset of the influenza outbreak called the “Spanish Flu.” Meuse-Argonne was the principal engagement of the AEF during World War I.” His was in the 91st Infantry Division, Company B, known at the “Pine Tree Division” (per the patch on the left sleeve).
For general defense service, not involving a specific battle, the “Defensive Sector” Battle Clasp was authorized. The clasp was also awarded for any battle which was not already recognized by its own battle clasp.