Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Charlestown Armistice Day Story

Veteran’s Day is Remembered as Armistice Day
“World War I ends 90 years ago”
By Bill Durette
CHS Veteran’s History Project
This Veteran’s Day will mark the 90th anniversary of the end of World War I. Veterans Day was originally called Armistice Day which marked the cessation of hostilities with Germany during World War I. It took effect on the eleventh Hour of the eleventh Day of the eleventh Month in 1918. In 1919 President Wilson proclaimed November 11th as Armistice Day and in 1938 Armistice Day was enacted as an official American holiday.

After WWII, citizens felt that the veterans of all wars should be recognized, not just those of WWI. So in 1954 Congress changed the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day. But for this year’s veterans day we should remember the origin of the holiday and remember it as Armistice day to honor the men who fought in what was commonly referred to as the “Great War” and “The War to end all Wars” World War I. In particular we should honor those Charlestown men who served with distinction on the battlefields of Europe. Of the approximately 100 Charlestown men who lost their lives serving in WWI, most were killed while serving with the 26th Yankee Division, some serving in the same company. The Yankee Division, although a National Guard Division, was rated one of the top performing divisions during the First World War. The division put new meaning in the expression “The Yanks are Coming.”

But before the US entered the war several Charlestown men joined the allied countries already fighting the Germans in Europe. One young man was William P Nearen, and I’m referring to him as a young man because he was underage when he joined. William ran away from home and joined the British expeditionary forces under the assumed name of John J Powers. He served with the 8th Irish Battalion and the 9th Battalion of the 78th Kings Liverpool Regiment. William would lose his life on August 12th 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. The Somme was the scene of horrific fighting in France that took the lives of 300,000 men. Nearen Row in Charlestown is named after William, the same street where his family would live years later after his death.

There were five other Charlestown men who would also join up with British and Commonwealth forces prior to the US involvement. They’re the Randell brothers; four of the brothers would lose their lives during the war. Leroy and Harold would enlist in 1914 with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces serving with the Canadian Black Watch. Both were killed in April, 1915 at the Battle of Ypres in Belgium. Thomas Randell was killed serving with the British Expeditionary Forces at the 2nd Battle of the Somme in April of 1918. The fourth brother Frederick lost his life at the Battle of Gallipoli in Turkey in 1915. He served with the Australian Expeditionary Forces. This battle was made famous by the 1981 movie “Gallipoli” in which over 10,000 Australian and New Zealanders lost their lives, along with one Townie, Frederick Randell. There was a fifth brother, James, who like Leroy and Harold would also serve in the Canadian Black Watch. He was severely wounded in 1915, and later served with the Lancashire Fusiliers. He returned home after the war the lone survivor of the Randell brothers. Two other men also served with the Canadian Expeditionary Forces, William Carter who was killed on Sept 30th 1918 and Eldon Ellston who was killed Oct 10th 1918 in France.

When the US finally entered the war on April 6th 1917, the Yankee Division was one of the first divisions to enter combat. Many of the Charlestown men who served with the Yankee Division were originally mustered into the 5th Infantry Regiment located at the Charlestown Armory on Bunker Hill Street. They then would be transferred to the 101st Infantry Regiment of the Yankee Division. Many of the men would serve in Company A and B of the 101st Regiment. The same regiment commanded by then Colonel Edward Logan for whom Logan Airport is named after.

The Yankee Division landed in France on Sept 17th 1917. It entered the front lines on Feb 6th 1918. The Division spent a total of 210 days in combat and would suffer by war’s end 11,955 casualties, close to 50% of the division’s strength. The majority of the casualties occurred during the fighting North of Verdun, France and during the St Miheil offense.

The fighting North of Verdun occurred in the last weeks of the war and was the scene of some of the bitterest fighting of the war. The Germans defended this area tenaciously. They weaken their positions along the rest of the front but built up this particular area because of its strategic location. The area itself was ideal for defensive positions with many wooded hills, for which the Yankee Division troops captured with frontal assaults, but at a high price. It was in this fighting that many of the Charlestown men would lose their lives and many acts of heroism would take place.

Not only did combat take its toll on the men fighting but the 1918 Influenza outbreak would also take its toll on the men fighting. Influenza killed more than 25 million people worldwide. The flu is believed to have started within the Army and then spread worldwide by soldiers who shipped out overseas to Europe. Of the approximately 100 Charlestown men who died in WWI, roughly 25 men died from the Influenza outbreak, mostly in September and October of that year. One of those men was Major Fred McDonald who fought in the Spanish American War. Other Charlestown men who died of Influenza were Charles W McGoldrick, William J McNulty, Michael R O’Brien, John J Sweeney and William L Walsh.

Charlestown was certainly not short of heroes during WWI. We had eight men win the Distinguished Service Cross during the war. The DSC is the Army’s highest award. Eight men winning this award from our small neighborhood is no doubt impressive. Five of those men were Yankee Division soldiers.
One of those men was Sergeant Westra Higgins of Company C, 101st Infantry Regiment. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions on October 23, 1918 north of Verdun, France. Sergeant Higgins alone attacked two machine-gun nests which were holding up the advance of his platoon, killing four of the enemy and capturing two.
Another Distinguished Service Cross recipient was 2nd Lieutenant George Meehan, an accomplished swimmer who was an officer with the 1st Infantry division. Lt Meehan would lose his life on Oct 9th 1918 from wounds received on Oct 5th 1918 near Exermont, France. He led his men through heavy machine gun and artillery fire urging his men forward by advancing ahead of the line during the attack before being wounded. This inspired the men to advance and take the objective. Cornelius O’Neil also served with the 1st Infantry Division and was cited for Gallantry in action. He was killed on Oct 9th 1918 near Fleville, France.
Several Charlestown men distinguished themselves during the Battle of Chateau Thierry. This is the campaign where the Germans advance towards Paris was stopped by the Americans. It also was the first offensive action of the war for the Americans. This is where Lieutenant Joseph A Molley of the 2nd Infantry Division won the DSC. Lt Molloy was awarded the DSC for extraordinary heroism in action near Vierzy, France on July 19, 1918. Lieutenant Molloy was leading his platoon through a heavily gassed area, when a large shell struck in the middle of his column, killing 15 men and wounding a like number. He himself was badly shocked, but immediately set to work administering to the wounded, despite the darkness, terrific shelling, and the necessity of wearing a gas mask, he administered first aid to practically all of the wounded, single-handedly, and secured their transportation to the rear. Another soldier was Captain George E Irving of Company B 101st Regiment who was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry and meritorious service for his actions in July of 1918 during the Battle of Chateau Thierry. Captain Irving would eventually be wounded on Oct 26th 1918 during the fighting North of Verdun. Another Chateau Thierry campaign hero is Victor J Roska; a US Marine who lost his life on June 4th 1918 from wounds received fighting at the famous battle of Bellau Wood on June 3rd.
Another decorated soldier is James W Corbin who enlisted in 1915 as a private and who was appointed a 2nd Lieutenant on Oct 1st 1918. He would be awarded the Silver Star and French Croix De Guerro for Gallantry in action on April 12-13th during the battle of Seicheprey. He served with the 104th Regiment of the Yankee Division and was awarded the medals because he continually exposed himself on open ground under enemy artillery fire to maintain the lines of communications. This is the same battle for which the 104th Regiment had its colors decorated. It was the first unit in US Army history to have its colors decorated by a foreign government. The regiment would again have its colors decorated by the French in WWII.
Other notable heroes were Private Arthur J Brickley, who was an ambulance driver that was awarded the French Croix De Guerro. He was known as a zealous driver who effectively evacuated wounded over routes violently swept by enemy artillery fire.
Private James T Hennessey of the 101st Infantry, who was wounded on May 31st 1918, was cited during the desperate fighting at Belieu Bois North of Verdun between Oct 23rd to Oct 27th 1918. He distinguished himself by performing extraordinary deeds of heroism. Private Herbert Lorenzi, a motorcycle dispatch courier with the 79th Infantry Division was cited for gallantry in action for performing his duties by driving his motorcycle mostly at night and alone under adverse conditions. On wet, slippery, congested roads often under shell fire and through gas, he unfailingly accomplished every one of his missions between October 8th through November 11th 1918. Sgt Arthur Van Tassel who served with Company H, 101st Regiment was cited for his actions during the St Miheil offensive. His citation reads “During the operations of this division in the advance against the enemy from September 12th to 14th, 1918, which resulted in the cutting off of the St Miheil Salient, by the march to Vigneulles and Hattonchatel, the following named officers and men, by their acts of personal bravery and devotion to the common cause, have again upheld the traditions of the American people, enhanced the already brilliant record of the Yankee Division, and have proven the sterling qualities of the American soldier. The Division Commander takes this means of expressing his gratitude and appreciation of the gallant deeds of these officers and men.
One Soldier, Samuel Swanson from 49 Monument Sq served with his father in the Yankee Division. He would go on serve with the 101st Field Artillery in WWII, the same unit he served with in the Yankee Division during WWI. He’s one of two recorded cases of a Private First Class in the Yankee Division that served in both WWI and WWII.
Those are just a few examples of the fighting spirit and bravery of the men who came from Charlestown that has spanned from the Revolutionary War to the present day.
Many of the hero squares around the town are dedicated to WWI men such as Frank Maffa who has one at Sullivan Square. He served with the 28th Division and lost his life on September 6th 1918. His two nephews, Francis and Canderlero Salvato, both brothers, would also lose their lives in WWII. Like Frank Maffa, both have a hero square located at Sullivan Square. Joseph C Crowley who died aboard the missing ship Cyclops has a hero square. Joseph A Miller who was killed on Sept 13th 1918 during the St Miheil offense and Peter H Smart who was killed on June 15th 1918 have hero squares. James J Tierney is another one who has a hero square located on Ferrin Street. He was killed in May, 1918 fighting in the Toul-Boueg, France sector. Joseph P Murphy and Frank W Chappie were both killed serving aboard the Ship “Jacob Jones” when it was sunk by an enemy submarine on December 6th 1917. Murphy has a hero Square and Chappie Street is named in honor of Frank Chappie. Frederick D Emmons is one of the men the Charlestown rink is named after. He was killed on Sept12th 1918 during the St Miheil Offensive while serving with the Yankee Division. Many of the courts at the Bunker Hill projects are named after men who served in WWI.

Another notable dedication is the Clarence R Edwards Middle School in Charlestown. It’s named after Major General Clarence R Edwards who commanded the 26th Yankee Division during WWI.

This year’s Veteran’s Day will no doubt see many events honoring veterans. But this year let’s pay special tribute to the WWI men. So on November 11th at 11:00 AM, exactly 90 years ago to the hour when fighting ended, remember those men who lived in Charlestown a long time ago who fought in the “Great War.”

Great job Bill!


Anonymous said...

I always inspired by you, your views and attitude, again, thanks for this nice post.

- Norman

Anonymous said...

My daughter sent this NYT article to me noting the reference to Bunker Hill . I sent her your link and the Charlestown Armistice Day Story. Great history of Charlestown's veterans.

To think that a townie would have carved that.


God Bless
A Townie.