A Code Breaker in the Attic: Discovering the Hidden Life of Elizebeth Smith Friedman

By Amy Butler Greenfield
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site 

It’s not every day that you discover a code breaker in your attic, but that’s what happened to me. When I was just a kid, I investigated some dusty boxes in the attic and found a profile of Elizebeth Smith Friedman in a 1937 Reader’s Digest. She was one of the best code breakers in American history, and it was during World War I that her career first took off. As it did for so many women, the war gave her opportunities beyond her wildest dreams.

PortraitESF1930 2Portrait of Elizebeth Smith Friedman, Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VAI was amazed by all that she had achieved, and I wanted to know more. Now I’ve had the chance to dig into her archives and records to get the full story, I’m even more impressed by her.

Born in Indiana in 1892, young Elizebeth Smith was sickly and small for her age, but she had a good mind, especially when it came to languages. Teaching didn’t suit her, but in 1916 she found a job at Riverbank, an estate and research center owned by George Fabyan, an oddball millionaire.

ESFTalk 207Elizebeth Smith Friedman with George Fabyan, Courtesy of the George C. Marshall Foundation, Lexington, VAFabyan believed that there were secret messages encrypted in Shakespeare’s First Folio, and he hired Elizebeth Smith to search for them. She soon decided that this was a crackpot’s mission, but she liked learning about ciphers and codes.

Through her work, she also met William Friedman, a Russian-born scientist who became her husband and code-breaking colleague.

In early 1917, Fabyan ordered the two of them to start a general “Department of Ciphers” at Riverbank,. He then offered their services to the U. S. Army, just as the country entered World War I.

Back then, the United States military had very few code breakers, and most of them were soon deployed in France. Eager to find more talent, the army sent an officer to investigate Riverbank. When the place passed muster, Elizebeth and William became the country’s main domestic code-breaking team. Impossible as it seems, their small team was responsible for decrypting secret messages for not only the War Department, but also the State Department, the Justice Department, the Navy, and even the Post Office.

Every day, encrypted messages were sent to Riverbank by railroad and telegraph, arriving by the sackful. Elizebeth and William had to get up speed fast. Working long hours, they used every known principle of cryptanalysis to break the messages in their possession. When that failed, they invented new methods. As Elizebeth later put it, they “became the learners, the students, the teachers, and even the workers all at once.”

Amazingly, they could crack almost any message within two hours. Elizebeth loved the moment when a solution emerged. “The skeletons of words leap out, and make you jump,” she later wrote.


Albert Finch 1915 and laterAlbert Harrison Finch as he appeared circa 1915 (left) before World War I, and as he looked in his later years post-World War II. 

Sergeant Albert H. Finch in the Great War

By WIlliam Finch
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

In honor of my Grandpa, I (William Finch) thought it was appropriate to document what I know about Albert H. Finch, who was a remarkable man and an inspiration to me. I am the heir to his medals, and his personal papers. The bulk of this article was written in 2018, with some recent edits and additions.

Early Days:

Albert Harrison Finch was born on July 4, 1895, in Roaring Brook Township, PA, near Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father’s name was Harrison Isaac Finch, and his mother was Louise Holford Finch (nee Isgar). His grandfather William Isgar was from Somerset, England.

The Finches were from a long line of Americans, starting with Abraham Finch, who was born in Stamford Connecticut in 1665. The family moved west to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, and some of Albert’s ancestors fought in the Battle of Wyoming, July 3. 1778, also called the “Wyoming Massacre”. There is a statue in Wyoming, PA commemorating this battle, with the names of three Patriots on it named Finch (Benjamin, Daniel, and John). These were ancestors of my Grandpa. (see: “Pennamite Wars” for an interesting perspective)

Before the war:

I remember a few stories my Grandpa told me about his life before the War. One story involved his father, Harrison Isaac Finch. Harrison oversaw the horse barn (a “teamster”) at Scranton Coal and Water. When the company got its first Model T Ford, Harrison quit, stating that this would be the end of the working man. He lived on a farm ten miles from Scranton, and regularly walked into town, never buying a car. Albert told me to think about how many jobs were created by the automobile, and that his father was so mistaken!

Grandpa also told me that before the war, he played for the Scranton minor league baseball team, (perhaps the “Scranton Miners”). My father Robert mentioned he thought his father had signed a contract to play pro baseball before he enlisted in the Army. That was not to be, however.


Larney familyFrom left, grandaughters of James Larney, Lisa M. Patenaude and Valerie A. LaClair with their mother, Mary Ann Larney hold photos and Robert Laplander's book "Finding the Lost Battalion". 

Fading ink, enduring legend: Family’s revered diary escorted back to World War I battlefields of France

By Chris Brock
via the NNY360 newspaper (NY) web site 

WATERTOWN — The 5-by-7-inch diary, worn, ragged, fading and stained by the mud and rain of World War I battlefields of France, has been lovingly kept by the Larney family for more than 100 years.

But this weekend, its revered words have taken on renewed meaning.

The diary connects the family in a tangible way to its creator — James Francis Larney, of the 308th Infantry Regiment, which formed part of the 77th Infantry Division. It was a unit originally made up of soldiers mainly from New York City with casualties replaced by untrained troops from the Midwest.

This Thanksgiving weekend, the diary has returned to France, in an alliance between the Larney family and a World War I historian and author who is solemnly escorting it through the battlefields where its words were originally set to paper by fountain pen and pencil by a soldier and writer whose life as a state highway engineer and land surveyor was interrupted by World War I, and where he served as an airplane signalman. He resumed his career with the state Department of Public Works upon his return to Watertown from The Great War.

According to Watertown Daily Times files, Mr. Larney, who died in May of 1974 at the age of 82, left Watertown with a contingent for Camp Devens, Mass., on Feb. 23, 1918 and went overseas on April 4, 1918.

Among episodes recorded by Pvt. Larney’s diary was the 308th Infantry’s experiences in “The Lost Battalion,” five days of suffering that became one of the most famous, and epic, events of the war.

“I was pretty blown away when I was talking to Larney’s granddaughter, and the suggestion was made, ‘Wouldn’t it be something if it went back to France?’” said Robert J. Laplander, Waterford, Wis., the world’s leading historian on The Lost Battalion. For more than 25 years, along with his wife Trinie, he has researched and explored the story of the Lost Battalion, the men who formed it, and their commander, Charles W. Whittlesey.

Mr. Laplander is author of the books, “Finding the Lost Battalion: Beyond the Rumors, Myths and Legends of America’s Famous WW 1 Epic,” published in 2006 and revised in 2017, and “The Lost Battalion: As They Saw It,” published in 2020. He was featured in the 2017 PBS “American Experience” program “The Great War” and started researching the story of The Lost Battalion in 1997 after obtaining a copy of “Ours to Hold High: The History of the 77th Division in the World War.”

He was interviewed by the Times last week, before heading to France.

“I almost couldn’t believe what I was hearing,” Mr. Laplander said of the agreement to take the diary back to France. “To have a chance to work with the diary in the first place is amazing on its own, but to have the chance to bring it back to where it was ‘born’ is unbelievable. I’m incredibly humbled and honored by this opportunity.”


Allentown PA barbed wire WWIIn an odd coincidence of war, a Doughboy from Allentown, PA crawling under German barbed wire in 1918 was startled to see a tag on the wire stamped with the words- in English- “Barb Wire Works Allentown Pa.”  

History's Headlines: Barbed wire in Allentown and WWI

By Frank Whelan
via the WFMZ-TV 69 News television station (PA) web site

By the 1980s, World War I was fast fading from living memory. But several elderly doughboys, then living at Allentown’s Phoebe Home, were still willing to share their experiences of the war that was to make the world safe for democracy, a war that would end all wars. Tragically it did neither. One among their ranks had a particularly dramatic tale to tell. He recalled crawling under the coiled rolls of barbed wire surrounding German trenches and suddenly looking up to see a small tag. As he recalled, it was stamped with the words- in English- “Barb Wire Works Allentown Pa.” As an Allentown native he recalled feeling a mixture of anger and resentment at the time but many years later wondered at the irony of it all.

This did not mean that the company was trading with the enemy. Allentown Barb Wire, by then a subsidiary of U.S Steel known as the American Steel and Wire Company, had been around since the 1880s and sold an awful lot of barbed wire to both sides in World War I before the U.S. entered the conflict in 1917. But it does tell of the importance of the international impact of the plant that was known locally as simply “the wire mill.”

At its height from 1900 to 1920, the 13-acre facility employed 1,200 men working 12-hour shifts and had its own police and fire departments as well as a small hospital. Telegraph keys clicked around the clock to a staff taking orders, and steam locomotives puffed in and out in a constant stream. A small community focused on Wire Street, many of them immigrants from the Austro-Hungarian empire, that made up part of the mill’s work force. Allentown residents kept time by its whistle.

According to some sources the wire mill came to Allentown as the result of a buggy ride. First known as the Iowa Barb Wire Company, it was founded in 1879 in Johnstown, Cambria County. It was a branch of the Iowa Barb Wire Fence Company of Marshalltown, Iowa. In 1881 it became its own company. The president was Charles Douglass. His brother George was secretary-treasurer. Apparently wanting to be closer to the East coast market, the Douglass brothers moved the company to Easton in 1884. But within two years they realized they had made a mistake. While a beautiful location it was confined by hills and the Delaware River. They needed room to expand. Easton just did not offer that.

By 1886 George Douglass was on the lookout for something nearby. That summer he took a trip to Allentown. Some sources suggest it was just an afternoon jaunt. But if so, it was one that took him to the office of Edward H. Reninger, secretary to the Allentown Board of Trade, ancestor of the Allentown Chamber of Commerce. Allentown had been recovering from the Panic of 1873 that had KO’d the city’s iron industry. The arrival of a silk mill in 1881 from Paterson, N.J. had begun a process of development that was taking the city away from relying on only one major industry.


Cromwell, IN native’s World War I diary shared in 'Fighting Hoosiers'

By Sheryl Prentice
via the Herald Republican newspaper (IN) web site 

A Cromwell native’s diary about living aboard a World War I battleship is included among the wartime stories in Fighting Hoosiers: Indiana in Two World Wars, a new book published by Indiana University Press.

Fighting Hoosiers coverGuy Burrell Connor grew up near Cromwell in Sparta Township before being drafted into the U.S. Navy. He kept a diary during his service, serving as a radio man aboard two battleships, the USS Pennsylvania and the USS New Hampshire.

The USS New Hampshire was a BB-25 battleship that entered World War I in April 1917 as primarily a training vessel for gunners and engine room personnel. She escorted convoys in late 1918, when Connor was aboard, and brought soldiers back to America from France after the war. The ship was sold for scrap in November 1923 after the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty reduced the size of the signers’ navies.

Author Dawn Bakken, associate editor at the 117-year-old “Indiana Magazine of History,” included excerpts from Connor’s diary along with the first-person accounts of six other Hoosiers who served in World War I and II.

Bakken said Connor’s diary from the last half of 1918 was first published in the history magazine in 1990 by editor Jeffrey Patrick. She did not know how Patrick obtained the diary, but said many families submitted diaries to the magazine over time.

Bakken found Connor’s words compelling.

“It’s such an interesting piece. People like first-person accounts,” Bakken said in a phone interview. “Diaries in wartime were fairly common, but forbidden, but soldiers kept them anyway.”

Fighting HoosiersConnor’s diary takes up 21 pages in the 200-page book. Bakken said Connor’s tone in the diary downplays the danger he was in. Connor notes that his ship encountered torpedoes, hurricanes and stealthy, battleship-hunting submarines, but he doesn’t say much about the fear he felt as he watched the ship’s crew succumb to the influenza epidemic of 1918.

“The diaries and memoirs have a matter-of-fact tone, but the experiences are terrifying,” Bakken said.

Connor’s diary is also remarkable for the glimpses into what technology was like in World War I. As a radio man, Connor describes the equipment and events on some of his watches aboard ship, but pages are missing that might reveal sensitive information such as the ship’s coordinates. He also describes the time-consuming process of “taking on coal.”

“Connor mentions the cleaning of the ship,” Bakken said. “And soot is everywhere.”


World War I Food: Eating in a Trench

via the WebFoodCulture web site

wfc 019 great war food07“An army marches on its stomach”: these words have been attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte. The famous French general (and, later, emperor) believed that, in order to win a war, feeding troops is as important as training and arming them. His opinion proved right especially during World War 1, when food played a critical role in the balance of power between the warring sides. Let’find out why!

The First World War: a bit of history.

The First World War began on 28 July, 1914. The spark that led to the explosion of the conflict was an attack in the city of Sarajevo: a tragic event where the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife were assassinated by a political extremist. The Austro-Hungarian Empire, considering the Kingdom of Serbia responsible for what happened, began the hostilities. The golden age of Europe, the ‘Belle Epoque’, had to give way to a clash of nations of unprecedented proportions: that’s why it’s still remembered as the ‘Great War’.

The ‘Great War’: a new kind of war.

To understand how much feeding troops tipped the balance of power during the Great War, it’s important to explain first the huge difference between this conflict and the previous ones.

The hostilities broke out in 1914, involving, one after the other, a great number of nations. The almost romantic idea, legacy of the Napoleonic era, of opposing armies fighting each other with honor, vanished almost immediately. When the first charge of heavy cavalry, until then considered the most powerful weapon, was easily annihilated by machine-guns, it became clear to everyone that something was definitely changed and it was thus necessary to completely rethink the way of fighting. After a few attacks of this type, the frontline stabilized.

Troops, desperately seeking refuge from new, deadly weapons, found shelter in the trenches: deep holes in the ground, dug along the margins of the opposing battle lines.
A huge, monstrous serpent, cut Europe in half, from north to south.

The fundamental importance of food during the Great War.

The commanders of both sides involved in the conflict, initially thought that their troops were going to stay in the trenches just for a brief period: they were wrong. Soldiers had in fact to remain inside of them for many years, killed in great number during frequent attacks to enemy positions: offensives as bloody as useless. What the generals planned as a short confrontation that would ensure a fast and glorious victory, turned into a nightmare: a long and grueling war of attrition. Among other things, it became quite clear that it was necessary to create a reliable system to feed a large number of men.


factory worker world war 1An American factory worker making munitions during World War I. Since 1914, America had been increasing its production of military capital as an exporter. Thus, when America entered the war itself, it could easily use such factories to make equipment. 

The Economic Effects of World War I: Debt Leads to Chaos

By Owen Rust
via The Collector web site

During the era of imperialism in the late 1800s and early 1900s, European powers forged military alliances among themselves, wagering that such strong alliances would discourage any attacks. However, when a conflict did erupt, it dragged the entire continent into an unexpectedly bloody and brutal war. Trench warfare and deadly new weapons like the machine gun and poison gas created a stalemate that lasted for most of World War I. Afterward, the huge costs of war led to economic devastation for Russia and Germany. Post-war recessions occurred in the early 1920s in Britain and the United States as military spending fell sharply.

Before World War I: Era of Imperialism and Alliances

After the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s, a relative peace enveloped Europe for roughly fifty years. In the late 1800s, however, a unified Germany emerged as a new power. After decades of internal conflicts, Germany and Italy had become unified nation-states as opposed to blocs of small, independent states. These two new nations looked to compete with the established European powers, Britain and France, for power, prestige, and colonies in Africa.

In 1884, thirteen European nations met in Berlin, capital of the new Germany, to establish rules for the division of Africa. With Britain, Spain, and France having (mostly) been driven out of their former empires in North and South America, the relatively unexplored continent of Africa was a prime target for territorial and economic conquest. Between November 1884 and February 1885, the members of the Berlin Conference divided Africa – without any input from Africans, of course – into many of the separate territories we know today.

As the new European powers rivaled each other for power, they entered military alliances to discourage attacks from enemies. The Triple Entente was an informal alliance of France, Britain, and Russia, established in 1907. Germany, believing that it was being “encircled” by the three historic powers of Europe, became more aggressive toward them. Since 1882, it had been part of a Triple Alliance of the three central European powers: Germany, Italy, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each nation believed that the presence of allies would prevent any rival from attacking because the allies would join the fight as if they themselves had been attacked.


Romagne Cemetery 

Democracy of Death: The US Army’s Graves Registration Service and its Burial of the World War I Dead

By Kyle Hatzinger
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site 

I learned about an aspect of World War I by accident and a dose of what I thought at the time was bad luck. My writing about that topic as part of a pursuit towards Ph.D. in History was one of the best mistakes of my life. This winding tale not only demonstrates how the pursuit of historical knowledge can truly be rewarding but also illustrates the breadth of World War I history that we have only begun to illuminate.

Col. Charles Pierce Col. Charles Pierce I received an assignment to teach History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, in 2012. My preference was to study World War II and was subsequently referred to the University of North Texas to work under a particular professor whose background was in World War II and possessed a relationship with West Point. I arrived armed with research and writing that I conducted years prior about my Great Uncle who, as a B-24 co-pilot in the 8th Air Force, was Missing in Action over Germany in 1944 and eventually determined to be Killed in Action. I wanted to research and write about how the United States Army handled its battlefield dead during and after World War II. This undertaking would fill a historiographical gap but also inform me as to whether or not the Army, through its policies and procedures, acquitted itself well in the case on my Great-Uncle and his crew.

When I arrived at UNT in the Fall of 2013, that professor was gone for what was thought to be a year at another institution. When that visit became extended by another year, I sought out Dr. Geoff Wawro, who took me under his mentorship. When I outlined my proposed topic he simply replied, “I think you should look at World War I.” Begrudgingly, I headed to the National Archives II in College Park, MD for what was to be an eye-opening rendezvous with history. I knew from previous research that by 1945 the Army already possessed a robust plan to locate, identify, and permanently bury its war dead. Following end of the war, it became a matter of setting those plans in motion and confronting challenges that arose. I half-expected the 1918 Army to have followed or at least established a similar methodology. No.

When the lead divisions of the nascent AEF sailed for France in 1917, a cable from General John J. Pershing to the War Department recommended burying all American dead overseas until war’s end as a means of saving precious cargo space. This recommendation originated from Pershing’s chief of the newly formed Graves Registration Service (GRS), Charles Pierce. Pierce had proven his expertise concerning the battlefield dead in the Philippines and was recalled to organize a force to handle the AEF’s dead in France. I quickly noticed that the dead (and their final disposition) garnered much attention from the very beginning of the war.

Concurrent to the formation of the GRS, the Red Cross and an organization called the Purple Cross lobbied Congress to receive contracts to embalm, transport, and bury the dead. Others in the funeral industry saw the potential financial gain to be had and tried to secure their participation in the eventual return and burial of the war dead.

Such quarrels were not limited to private enterprise, however. Following the deaths of Corporal James Gresham, and Privates Thomas Enright and Merle Hay on 3 November 1917, a series of events foreshadowed some of the problems that would affect the GRS’s work.


WWI Choctaw Code TalkersLeft to right: Solomon Bond Lewis, Mitchell Bobb, James Edwards, Calvin Wilson, Joseph Davenport, and Captain Elijah Horner. 

America’s first Code Talkers were Choctaw soldiers during WWI

By Miguel Ortiz 
via the We Are The Mighty web site 

During WWII, American Indian code talkers used their native languages to communicate in secret on the battlefield. At least 15 Native nations including the Navajo, Cherokee and Comanche served as code talkers in both the Pacific and European theaters. However, the first successful U.S. military use of indigenous language as a secure form of communication came in the previous world war.

During the Meuse-Argonne campaign of 1918 in France, Allied communication was in bad shape. The Germans had broken the Allied code, tapped telephone lines, monitored radio transmissions and captured one in every four runners between companies. An Army officer came up with a solution to the communication problem when he heard a group of Choctaw soldiers conversing in their native language.

After an initial test and brief training in telephone messages, the Army established Choctaw Telephone Squads within the 141st, 142nd and 143rd Infantry Regiments of the 36th Infantry Division. Using their native tongue, the Choctaw code talkers could communicate military messages the Germans simply couldn’t understand. Coded words were used from the Choctaw language to describe military terms for which there was no translation. For example, the Choctaw words for “little gun shoot fast” meant “machine gun.”

Choctaw messages were sent via field telephone and written message during the battles of St. Etienne and Forest Ferme. Allied victories at these engagements ultimately contributed to the end of the Great War. The original Choctaw Code Talkers included Solomon Louis, Mitchell Bobb, Ben Carterby, Robert Taylor, Jeff Nelson, Pete Maytubby, James Edwards and Calvin Wilson. They were joined later by Albert Billy, Victor Brown, Tobias Frazier, Benjamin Hampton, Joseph Oklahombi, Walter Veach, Benjamin Colbert, George Davenport, Joseph Davenport, Noel Johnson and Otis Leader. By the war’s end, Oklahoma Cherokees, Comanches, Cheyennes and Osages also served as code talkers.


Rock of the Marne: Ulysses G. McAlexander

via the Meandering through the Prologue web site

bg mcalexander 180th bgUlysses Grant McAlexander late in WWI as a brigadier general.The Centenary of World War One has come and gone. A few books published, but mostly, no special remembrances occurred that garnered much attention here in the U.S. compared to Europe. Of course, the First World War affected Europe much harsher and for a much longer period than the United States. The war dragged on for a little over four long years Over There with America only involved for a little more than the last year and a half.

One American who did stand out was Ulysses G. McAlexander, nicknamed “Rock of the Marne” for his leadership in one of the earliest battles American forces did fight.

Great War in American Memory

One could fairly say that the Great War might have been the signal event of the 20th Century – it certainly was of the early part. Without WWI, would there have been a WWII? Fascism? Communism? A Holocaust? Universal suffrage here and abroad? Or would the old monarchies have held on and the 19th century continued a bit longer?

The war brought the United States onto the World stage in a big way, as well – first as banker and supplier and second as an enthusiastic participant. The U.S. involved just long enough to get bloodied a bit and demonstrate the power of its economic might. And then, America tried to turn her back on the World, being successful for a number of years until WWII caused a refocus.

World War One was a big event for the United States at the time of the war and during the interwar period. From a prewar Army consisting of only 100,000 men – with another 120,000 in a National Guard that just stepped away from its State militia days as a State militia, some four million men mobilized with almost two million men reaching Europe by the summer of 1918. One million of those served on the frontlines. Those who died – 110,000 of whom 45,000 died of the Spanish flu – and those who served remembered well.

Great War Comes to Oregon State

That is, until December 4, 1941. The Second World War dwarfed the first horrible conflagration to the point that memory dimmed. And so even here at Oregon State, people forgot. Forgot that many Oregon Staters served, were wounded or died. Over 1,400 signed up and over 50 died with many more suffering wounds. One Beaver wounded in France, Douglas McKay, went on to become the Governor of Oregon. Another, honored with the Medal of Honor, Edward Allworth, played a prominent role in erecting the Memorial Union Building. He served as the manager for thirty years.

That brings us to Oregon State’s most famous individual involved with the Great War – Ulysses Grant McAlexander. We might be familiar with the McAlexander Fieldhouse. set off from Jefferson Way across from the Valley Library. Students may be more familiar with the sports courts within the old Armory. That was the original name until 1971. The building renamed in the old general’s honor and renovated by the university for intramural sports.


10 Greatest Nurses of World War I

via the Top RN to BSN web site

10. Lenah HigbeeLenah HigbeeThe nurses of World War I are truly inspirational heroes. They overcame insurmountable odds, endured gender-based prejudice, and helped a flood of wounded soldiers under enemy fire.

Each of these courageous women, though patriots of different countries, were ultimately devoted to the true calling of nursing: saving human life.

Some did it through administration and coordination. Some stood firmly at their posts while bombs exploded around them. And others were so passionate that they continued their work despite being in direct opposition to military law.

In the end, there is no doubt that each nurse is a credit to the nursing profession.

10. Lenah Higbee 

Lenah Higbee was one of the first nurses to join the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps when it was established in 1908. This move required sacrifice and perseverance, as many members of the Navy considered female nurses unwelcome pariahs, indeed, they were not even given rank.

Lenah Higbee gave navy nursing her all and was quickly appointed Chief Nurse. A few years later, she was promoted to Superintendent of the Nurse Corps, the second woman to hold the position.

Higbee was the first female to be awarded the Navy Cross, for her unusual and conspicuous devotion to duty during WWI. And after her death, a naval combat ship was named USS Higbee in her honor. It was the first time a naval vessel had been named after a female service member.


Dracut, MA HS student leads effort to revitalize WWI monument in Hovey Square

By Rebecca Duda
via the Lowell Sun newspaper (MA) web site

Dracut is a small town, but it is not lacking on volunteers.

From the Dracut Scholarship Foundation to Old Home Day, the people of Dracut always come together for a good cause. Recently, I learned of a new volunteer project underway in town and it is being organized by Dracut High School student Richard Silvio. Silvio is founder and president of the World War I Rededication Committee.

richard silvioRichard SilvioDracut’s World War I memorial is located in the heart of Hovey Square, named for the old Hovey house and tavern which once stood where Hannaford Supermarket now is located. While the square had long been a busy thoroughfare for travelers, in 1925 it was the site of a dedication ceremony to honor the Dracut men who served in the Great War.

A group of volunteers led by Warren Fox organized a committee to commission a memorial to honor the 160 men from Dracut who served from 1917-1919. The massive granite monument was unveiled on Saturday, May 30, 1925 — Memorial Day — at a ceremony the Lowell Sun described as, “inspiring and impressive.” Those in attendance and seated near the speakers’ platform included Gold Star mothers, veterans from the Spanish-American War, World War I, and Boy and Girl Scouts.

With the passage of time, that generation of volunteers has passed and the memorial they unveiled has stood silently in the middle of the bustle of Hovey Square. Today the bronze plaque is weathered and the granite needs to be washed down to bring it back to its former grandeur. That is where Silvio and the World War I Rededication Committee comes in. Their goal is to restore the memorial and to also educate the public on Dracut’s efforts during World War I.

So, how did a Dracut High School student become the leader of this volunteer effort? He credited his fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Boucher, with piquing his interest in the early 20th century. He told me she taught the class about the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and ever since he has been fascinated by this time period. Later on, he became interested in World War I. An avid reader, Silvio has read up on the Battle of Verdun and recently read “The Last of the Doughboys.”

Like all students I’ve encountered, Silvio enjoys connecting local history with larger global events. As he was reading John Pendergast’s book, “Dracut,” he discovered Dracut’s connection to World War I and the memorial in Hovey Square. He then paid a visit to park to see the 1925 memorial firsthand.

After visiting the memorial, he was saddened to see that it had been forgotten, much like the war itself, and felt it needed to be restored. That is when he sprang into action. He reached out to his television mentor, John Zimini who put him in touch with John Dyer from the American Legion, John Cuddy from the Boy Scouts, and Jeff Hollett, the veterans’ agent for the town. Through Silvio’s efforts, Hudson Monuments has agreed to donate the chemicals to properly clean the stone, the Fire Department has agreed to unlock the fire hydrant so the monument can be power-washed, and the Dracut Garden Club has agreed to help plant new flowers and shrubs.

Silvio hopes to also add some benches and some historical signs explaining the history of the memorial. The goal is to restore the memorial and the park and have a rededication ceremony on July 4. 


Kimball WV memorialThe Kimball World War Memorial Building, as seen here in 2019, was built in 1928 to honor Black World War I veterans. 

West Virginia town home to first memorial honoring Black WWI vets

By Rick Steelhammer
via the Williamson Daily News newspaper (WV) web site

KIMBALL, W.Va. - The roots of America's Veterans Day observance can be traced to the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, when a cease-fire went into effect, ending hostilities in World War I.

More than 4 million U.S. military personnel took part in ''The War to End All Wars." That number included more than 350,000 Black Americans - 1,500 from McDowell County, West Virginia, which would become home to the nation's first and only memorial building honoring Black Americans who served in the war.

Black soldiers and sailors of the World War I era were part of a segregated military and had to fight for respect before they could fight the Germans.

African American units sent to Europe initially were assigned to behind-the-lines support roles, rather than combat. While those jobs were crucial to the war effort, they prevented Black soldiers from proving their mettle under fire. But as casualties increased and pressure from African American political and civic leaders mounted, two all-Black infantry divisions were created. To lead them, more than 600 Black enlistees were commissioned as officers after completing training at Camp Dodge, Iowa.

That group included Daniel Ferguson, who grew up in Fayette County, graduated from Charleston's Garnet High School and attended the West Virginia Collegiate Institute - West Virginia State University's forerunner - before enrolling at Ohio State University. There, he earned bachelor and master's degrees and set school records as a member of OSU's track team.

Ferguson took leave from his teaching position at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute to enlist in the U.S. Army as a private in October 1917. After being commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant, he commanded a machine-gun training company through the end of the war, then returned to the faculty at what would become WVSU and taught sociology and economics classes. He later served as dean.

Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces, was opposed to assigning Black infantry units to operate with white troops. To avoid doing so, he assigned the first four Black infantry regiments, to arrive in France in late 1917 and early 1918, to the French army, which had earlier asked for U.S. troops to replace its casualties.

More than 40,000 Black U.S. soldiers were assigned to the French army and were immediately deployed to front-line positions. One such Black regiment spent 191 days at the front - five days longer than any other American unit - and its soldiers collected 171 Croix de Guerre medals for bravery. By the time the war ended, Black soldiers fighting with the French had earned more than 500 Croix de Guerre medals. 

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