Finding a century-old tale of a tragic soldier

Sgt. Boyle clips from Allentown Morning Call (left) and Allentown Democrat

Clips of Page 1 stories from the Allentown Morning Call (left) and the Allentown Democrat on April 11, 1918, the day after Sgt. James J. Boyle’s deadly rampage.

It’s amazing how a story idea can hit you when you aren’t looking for one.

That’s what happened to me last year while I was paging through a Sunday edition of The Morning Call.

The paper has a terrific feature that shows images of Morning Call front pages from 100 years ago, 50 years ago and 25 years ago. I like to see how the news of the day was handled.

On this particular Sunday, a two-column headline atop the Allentown Morning Call of April 11, 1918, caught my eye.

SERGT. JAS. BOYLE OF THIS CITY
RAN AMUCK AT FORT WRIGHT;
TWO KILLED AND FOUR WOUNDED

What happened, exactly? Where was Fort Wright? I couldn’t read the text, because the photo reproduction of the page was too small. But I subscribe to Newspapers.com, and that’s where I learned about Sgt. James J. Boyle’s dark deed at a fort off the Connecticut coast. He was posted there with the Coast Artillery Corps, getting ready to go to France as World War I raged. In “a crazed state of mind,” he went through a barracks shooting other soldiers, then killed himself.

Papers across the country carried the story, but nothing had been written about Boyle and his rampage since April 1918. I wanted to change that.

Old newspaper clippings wouldn’t be enough. I needed Army records, especially a report of investigation, assuming there had been one. It turned out that the National Archives at St. Louis has paperwork on Boyle, but not his official military personnel file, which an archivist said might have been destroyed in the massive 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center.

The National Archives does have Boyle’s burial case file, which documents the disposition of his remains and briefly mentions how he died. It has a VA master index card for him, showing such details as date of birth, service number and unit information. And it has his deceased veteran claim file, which tracks the benefits Boyle received in and out of service, and the benefits his family received after his death. This file also has the key item – a report about the incident.

I was thrilled.

The material totaled 216 pages and was rich with information. But when I got to the middle of the stack and saw the two-page typewritten report of investigation, I was sorely disappointed. The first photocopied page was almost completely unreadable; the other I could just barely make out. A call to the archivist resolved the problem. That afternoon, he emailed me two scans of the illegible page, one of which he worked on to sharpen the image, the other untouched. Calling these up on my screen, I could zoom in on the text and make out the words.

The report by four Army officers was critical to my story. It gave an account of Boyle’s behavior before the shootings, a moment-by-moment narrative of his spree; and the Army’s conclusion that he was physically ill and insane at the time. It put the toll at five dead, including Boyle, and two wounded. It noted that one of Boyle’s victims didn’t die from gunfire, as newspapers reported, but from trying to avoid being shot – he jumped from a second-floor porch and fractured his skull on the steps below.

IMG_3655

Boyle’s gravestone in the Immaculate Conception Catholic Church cemetery, Allentown. He was in the 9th Company, not the 9th Regiment, Coast Artillery Corps.

One blustery cold Saturday morning, I stood at Boyle’s grave in an Allentown churchyard. Later, a visit to the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle gave me background information on the units he served in: the 6th Field Artillery Regiment, the 311th Machine Gun Battalion and the Coast Artillery Corps.

The Morning Call posted my story online on December 29 and ran it in the Sunday paper the next day. Here’s the link: https://bit.ly/2sDnyiY

I’m glad I could tell the story of Sgt. Boyle’s life and death. To a great extent, I was lucky. If the newspaper hadn’t reproduced the April 11, 1918, front page, and if I hadn’t looked at it closely, I might never have known about this tragic soldier.

 

 

 

 

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They sacrificed their dreams

More than a hundred people came to Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, on November 11, Veterans Day, for the dedication of a memorial to the school’s war dead. It was an event that had special meaning for me.

All four honorees graduated in the mid-1960s and died in the Vietnam War. Their names are on the memorial: Gary D. Jefferis, Robert J. Nixon, Lewis R. Valentine and Nicholas L. Venditti, who was my cousin and the subject of my book Tragedy at Chu Lai https://tragedyatchulai.com/.

I was unable to attend the ceremony, but later John Herr of the memorial committee sent me photos, and Brian Peterman, a 1968 graduate and retired Coast Guard vice admiral https://www.commandcg.com/dpeterman.html, emailed me the text of his speech. It brought tears to my eyes. With his permission, I’m posting it here:

Great Valley Memorial Dedication

On this Veterans Day 2018, I’d like to start by thanking all the veterans present for your service and sacrifice. The focus of today, however, is to honor four Great Valley graduates and veterans who cannot stand with us to be honored:

Robert Nixon
Gary Jefferis
Nick Venditti
Lewis Valentine

Let’s look back in time to the early 1960s. These four men were among the first to attend the new Great Valley High School. It was a turbulent time in our nation’s history, fighting an unpopular war. The Patriot was chosen as the new school’s mascot, a square-jawed, steely-eyed Continental soldier carrying a musket and ready to go into battle. After these four men graduated, their country called them to serve and they answered that call, perhaps inspired by their high school mascot.

These patriots made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their nation, their community and to us. They never had the opportunity to make lifetime achievements that might have earned them a place as a distinguished alumnus because they died so young. But if the spirit of the Great Valley Patriot is the measure of what a distinguished alumnus should be, then these four Patriots are by far the elite of distinguished alumni.

I’d like to thank the Great Valley Foundation, the Great Valley Alumni Association, the Great Valley School District and all the people who donated their time, talent and treasure to erect this fitting memorial to the men who are most worthy of recognition as elite Patriots.

To the families of our fallen heroes, there are no words to adequately express our deep appreciation for the sacrifice you made. On behalf of a grateful nation and community, we place this monument here today so that the sacrifice made by your loved one will never be forgotten.

And to the students of Great Valley High School, this monument is also for you. It is a reminder that the freedoms you enjoy come at a great cost. These four Patriots and many other heroes have given their lives so that you can enjoy these freedoms. Cherish them and use them responsibly. These men walked the same halls of Great Valley High School as you do now, and they had the same dreams of a future of success and family. They sacrificed those dreams for you.

You use the Great Valley Patriot as a mascot to inspire enthusiasm for your sports and academic teams. I suggest you think of the Patriot as an inspiration for even more and ask yourselves how you can serve your nation and community. Come out here often and be reminded of the sacrifice made by these Great Valley Patriots and continue to honor these heroes just as we are doing today.

A man never dies until he is forgotten. That will never happen here.

Great Valley High School to honor its war dead

For many who went to war and didn’t come back, high school had been their last stop before the military – four years of fun and learning. It’s fitting, then, that some schools put up permanent reminders of their sacrifice.

Great Valley High School in Malvern, Pennsylvania, will be doing just that, erecting a veterans memorial on campus. One of the young men it will honor is my cousin Nicholas Venditti, Class of ’66, the subject of my book Tragedy at Chu Lai https://tragedyatchulai.com/

Three other alumni will be honored. All of them – like Nicky – were killed in the Vietnam War. They were Robert Nixon and Gary Jefferis, both from the Class of ’65, and Lewis Valentine, Class of ’67. There were no alumni deaths from World Wars I and II and the Korean War because the school was new, opening in 1962. No graduates were found to have died in the U.S. wars that followed Vietnam.

Until now, the high school only had an undated plaque bearing the names of Jefferis, Nixon, Valentine and Venditti. It was presented by the Interact Club, a student organization with ties to the Kiwanis Club. While working on my book in the 1990s, I found the plaque in a glass display case in the school’s main hallway.

The new veterans memorial is the work of the Alumni Association and the Foundation at Great Valley, along with the school district. A Go Fund Me campaign,
https://www.gofundme.com/GVVeteransmemorial, has raised $10,000 for the project. A dedication will be held at 2 p.m. Sunday, November 11, Veterans Day, on the school grounds.

Why is this memorial important?

Each family, each community that loses a loved one in a war is changed forever. That is proof that Nicky Venditti’s life mattered, Robert Nixon’s life mattered, Gary Jefferis’ life mattered, Lewis Valentine’s life mattered.

The Great Valley Veterans Memorial will help remind us of that.

D-Day veteran made all the right moves

Dan Curatola in France, 1945.

Dan Curatola of Bethlehem, Pa., had this picture taken in a coin-operated booth in Verdun, France, in May 1945.

You could not beat Dan Curatola at checkers. I tried over and over again, with no luck. His nimble brain was always ahead of the game, anticipating every move as he closed in for the kill. He was focused, relentless. It was amazing to see.

He was 89 when we played, and said he was the checkers champion in Bethlehem, Pa., his hometown, before the U.S. got into World War II. His next move was to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division, which took him to North Africa, Sicily and France. He had a facility for language – he spoke Italian, quickly picked up French.
On D-Day, June 6, 1944, he was in the first wave at Omaha Beach. Think of the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan and you have an idea what he went through. Two days later he was wounded and almost died.

Dan had two Bronze Stars for heroism and a Purple Heart. I interviewed him for a story marking Memorial Day 2009. It ran in two parts in The Morning Call and also appears in my book War Stories in Their Own Words, http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html.

He told me that he could never forget the war and men dying. It was burned in his consciousness, he said.

Dan Curatola and David Venditta in June 2009

June 2009: Dan Curatola and I stand in front of an Army jeep at the annual D-Day remembrance picnic in Nazareth Boro Park.

Dan and I stayed friends. Besides playing checkers, we went to luncheon meetings of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge in Walnutport, where he once shook hands with a distinguished visitor, Mario Andretti. (Dan was a member of the Bulge group because, after recovering from his wounds, he returned to the war zone for limited duty during the German offensive.) He was honored with other local D-Day vets at VBOB’s annual picnic at Nazareth Boro Park commemorating the Normandy invasion.

One day when I was driving him to one of the VBOB lunches, he sang for me. It was a song he had heard only once, in 1944 in Kidderminster, England, in a hospital ward packed with other wounded soldiers. A U.S. Army nurse came into the ward with a guitar to entertain the men, sat down and sang a tune she herself had written. Dan not only remembered the music, he remembered the lyrics. It was all the more incredible in light of the condition he was in as he lay in the ward – shrapnel had almost torn off his left arm, he had shrapnel in his back and right leg, and a bullet in his side.

Dan played pinochle and enjoyed Lehigh University wrestling. As a boy, he went to Yankees games in New York and saw Joe DiMaggio play. He was an attentive fan, always keeping a meticulous scorecard. When I took him to a Lehigh Valley IronPigs game, we sat in the right-field bleachers and he dutifully scribbled on a scorecard, recording each out. I had a fright when a rocket-like line-drive foul ball slammed into an empty seat directly in front of us. I’d stood up and put out my hands to deflect it, if necessary, determined not to let the ball hit Dan. I couldn’t let a war hero die from a foul ball at a minor-league baseball game.

In the fall of 2010, Dan and I went on a bus trip sponsored by the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project to see the National World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. When we got back, the Sands casino in Bethlehem treated our entire group to dinner. As gratifying as the trip was, I could tell that Dan’s once-steely mind was slipping. He had bouts of confusion.

The following spring, Dan was admitted to the nursing home at the VA Medical Center in Wilkes-Barre. He would never return to his home in Bethlehem, where he’d lived alone.

He died last month, on January 29, at age 98.

Months after he was moved into the VA hospital, I went to visit him but didn’t stay long. I wasn’t sure he recognized me. He did seem to remember his role on D-Day, when I mentioned to others in the room that he was in the first wave ashore at Omaha Beach.

“It’s something you never forget,” he said, looking at me straight in the eye, emphasizing each word.

Death of a general, and how I knew her

From before I met Anna Mae Hays, I had been writing about war veterans and working on a book about my cousin who died in Vietnam. People I met in the process connected me to Hays, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., where I live, and was the first woman in the U.S. military to become a general.

I’d like to tell you about this, because it shows how friends and acquaintances can weave in and out of our lives, sometimes to surprising and wonderful effect.

Anna Mae Hays in Vietnam

Anna Mae Hays as an Army colonel and chief of the Army Nurse Corps, on a helicopter trip to visit the 45th Surgical Hospital near Tay Ninh, Vietnam, in 1968. This photo is from the Lehigh County Historical Society. Hays, who grew up in Allentown, Pa., was promoted to brigadier general in 1970 and retired the next year.

Hays died January 7 in Washington, D.C., at age 97. She had served the country overseas in World War II and the Korean War, and led the Army Nurse Corps during the Vietnam War. After chronicling her life in The Morning Call, http://bit.ly/2CEa4qu, I heard from two friends I’ve been very fortunate to know.

“She certainly was a remarkable woman,” wrote Lynn Bedics, herself a former Army nurse, who went on to become the nurse manager at the Allentown VA Outpatient Clinic and is now retired. “I feel privileged to have met her when she was the speaker [to promote] the Korea-Vietnam Memorial.”

The memorial is on the campus of Lehigh Carbon Community College in Schnecksville, near Allentown. Its U.S. Armed Forces Plaza was dedicated in 2005.

I’d met Lynn as a result of a War Stories project I edited at The Morning Call. Reporter Ron Devlin was interviewing vets for our Veterans Day 1998 special section. I asked him to include a nurse. He found Lynn and told me where and when she’d served – in 1969 and at the same Army hospital in Vietnam where my cousin Nicky Venditti died after a grenade accident. Lynn gave Devlin her maiden name. It matched a signature I found in clinical records of Nicky’s care.

So, Lynn had tended to Nicky in his last days. On top of this incredible coincidence, she lives in my neighborhood. Her account of her Army service in Vietnam takes up a chapter in my book Tragedy at Chu Lai, http://tragedyatchulai.com/

The other message I got was from Dick Musselman of the Lehigh Valley Veterans History Project. He met Hays, a retired brigadier general who had lived in Arlington, Va., since 1964, on one of the group’s bus trips to Washington. The trips allow World War II vets to see the National World War II Memorial at no cost.

“We had made arrangements to have our lunch catered by a D.C. veterans organization at the Women’s Memorial, which is next to Arlington Cemetery,” the Navy vet wrote, using the common name for the Women in Military Service for America Memorial. “She joined us as our guest and interacted with many of the veterans. She was exceedingly pleasant, with great poise and genuine compassion for every one of those vets.”

Dick and I share a passion for getting war veterans to tell their stories so others will know their sacrifice and courage. We got to be friends at the monthly meetings of the Lehigh Valley Chapter, Veterans of the Battle of the Bulge, where he tipped me off to vets who had compelling stories. Regrettably, because of another commitment, I haven’t been to one of the lunches in more than a year.

Story about Martin F. Schaffer's death

The Morning Call’s story about leading Lehigh Valley veteran Martin F. Schaffer’s Jan. 2, 2002, death near Fort Dix. Retired Brig. Gen. Anna Mae Hays attended Schaffer’s funeral.

As far as my own contact with General Hays, it was sparse. I met her in 2002 at the funeral of a leading Lehigh Valley veteran, Martin F. Schaffer. The World War II and Korean War submariner was hit and killed by a car while crossing a street near Fort Dix, N.J., after buying a cup of coffee at a convenience store. He was 82.

Marty had founded the Lehigh Valley Chapter of the Submarine Veterans of World War II and led the United Veterans of Wars, Allentown. He steered me to local vets he thought would be terrific interviews, sending me postcards with their names. Among them were B-17 pilot and POW Earl “Lee” Leaser and Robert Holden, who was on the sub that rescued downed Navy pilot George H.W. Bush.

At Marty’s funeral, Gene Salay came up to me and said General Hays was there and would I like to meet her. “Yes, of course,” I said, and he introduced us.

Gene was a former, longtime director of Lehigh County Veterans Affairs. I’d known him for seven years, ever since I set out to learn what happened to my cousin, a 20-year-old Army helicopter pilot from Malvern, Pa., who survived only 11 days in Vietnam. Gene was the first person I called about how to get Army records on the accident that left Nicky mortally wounded. That was the start of our friendship.

Gene Salay in Korea in 1953

Army Pfc. Gene Salay with a South Korean interpreter in July 1953 near the North Korean border. The interpreter, Kim Yung Jo, was killed soon afterward in the Battle of the Kumsong River Salient. Salay was seriously wounded in the fighting and captured by the Chinese.

A Purple Heart veteran and POW of the Korean War, Gene had a troubling story of his own that kept him in counseling. He wouldn’t tell it, despite a few years of my nudging. I knew only that he had been shot and almost died in a battle near the 38th parallel just before the armistice, and was held captive by the Chinese.

In 2003, he changed his mind about an interview. The story ran in the newspaper as part of my series, War Stories in Their Own Words, and is in my book of the same title, published by The Morning Call, http://store.mcall.com/war-stories.html.

Part of my interview with Gene, where he describes the July 1953 battle near Kumhwa in which he was seriously wounded and captured, was used by journalist Barbara Demick in her prize-winning book Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea.

Gene was one of the nicest guys I’ve ever known. He died in 2010, with a bullet from 1953 still lodged near his heart.

His introducing me to General Hays at Marty Schaffer’s funeral was the only time I ever saw her. But she knew who I was and that I wrote the War Stories. In October 2013, she spoke with me by phone from her apartment in Arlington — an interview that became the backbone of my story on her death.

There’s one other thing about General Hays that hits home. She is in my book about Nicky, and it’s by virtue of a statistic she cited concerning the care given wounded U.S. troops in Vietnam. They were likely to survive, she once said, because of the work by combat medics and field-hospital staff. Only 1.2 percent of injured Americans who lived long enough to reach a hospital in Vietnam died after getting there.

Nicky’s misfortune was to be among the 1.2 percent.

Letters home from two doughboys in the Great War

James H. Kendrick

Sgt. James R. Kendrick of Company B, 14th Engineers, in The Tennessean newspaper of Nashville on December 8, 1918. My great-uncle George F. Cunningham was in the same outfit. I found this clip on Newspapers.com.

Frank Riggie wished he were with his brother Joe on the Western Front, facing the German army. He said so in a letter.

Joe thought Frank was nuts.

“You do not realize what you are saying when you announce a desire to be with us,” wrote Joe, a first sergeant with Company C, 14th Engineers, in the fall of 1917. “Consider yourself fortunate that you are in Vermont instead of France. The sound of heavy gunfire is continuous, and, believe me, when you hear the first shell screech overhead you commence to realize that war is a rough game. We are all looking forward to the time when our work will have been completed and we start back to the good old U.S.A., but we will stick until the curtain drops.”

The letter home is one of two from doughboys of the 14th Engineers I found on a research website. It was printed in the Riggie brothers’ hometown newspaper, the Essex County Herald of Guildhall, Vermont, on December 14, 1917.

I latched onto the letters because my great-uncle George F. Cunningham served in that U.S. Army regiment during the First World War, helping to build, run and maintain narrow-gauge railroads. George, a private first class from West Chester, Pennsylvania, was the subject of my last blog. He joined Company B as a replacement in March 1918 amid a massive German offensive and served in France until the next year, months after the armistice. He didn’t leave behind any record of his experience that I know of, so I wanted to see if others in his regiment were more open about what they saw, heard and felt.

Back in the old days, letters from hometown boys fighting overseas appeared in the local press. That’s what I was mining Newspapers.com for, and I got lucky with Joe Riggie’s account and one from a soldier who was in my great-uncle’s company. They give a glimpse of the men and the times.

Riggie’s letter, dated November 13, 1917, was headlined Over There: An Interesting Account of What the Railway Engineers are Doing “Somewhere in France”. The 14th Engineers had come to the war just three months earlier and were assigned to Britain’s 6th Army Corps. Joe opened by thanking Frank and his wife, Iva, for a gift they’d sent him.

“Your package containing cigars, etc., reached me October 30th, and this is the first opportunity I have had to write and thank you. You have no idea what a treat those smokes were, and such good ones. … American smokes of every kind are not obtainable here, and the issue of English tobacco is punk, mostly mixtures, and resembles and tastes like curled hair.

“Our only pastime is smoking and reading, as we are located in a very desolate and barren section of France. Of course, there is plenty going on in a military way, action galore, but absolutely nothing for recreation. Lights are not allowed at night any more than necessary, as they expose us to danger from enemy aeroplanes, but we have candles that we can use until 9:30 p.m. Am quartered in a low hut (shaped like a half barrel cut lengthwise) and have been very busy with the carpenter’s tools manufacturing my office furniture. Just getting settled now and it is somewhat better than doing business in a tent, especially when the weather is such as it has been here during the past six weeks. Rains nearly every day and the mud is terrible.

“The people at home little realize what a tremendous operation this war means, and those who imagine that there is pleasure with any of the active organizations in this country should join the colors immediately. I am perfectly contented, however, and in the very best of health. …

“Not very cold here as yet, but foggy and damp. We are operating narrow-gauge lines at present, and you should see our boys handle the dinky outfits. Perhaps you imagine that the trains consist of the locomotive, cars and caboose of the ordinary makeup at home – no such trains here. To be sure, there is the engine, but no caboose or coach for the crew, and the cars are like large dry-goods boxes, no cover or running board. The shells, if large enough, are loaded like pulpwood, as well as all other kinds of explosives. …

“While we do not consider ourselves in any particular danger, it would amaze you people at home if you only knew how little a life is worth in the war zone. We have been exceedingly fortunate, though, and none of the boys in my company have cashed in. …

“We move so often that it is hard to find time to write a decent letter, [but we] have not moved for over six weeks, except from tent to tent and hut to hut. About time to set us in motion again. …

“No one knows when we will return, but [we] do not expect to be here less than two years. Write often as you can and give me all the news because letters are appreciated more than money. By the way, we are paid in French money every month at the rate of 5 francs 10 centimes … . It takes 100 centimes to make a franc, and 10 centimes is about the same as two cents in American money. Very easy money to get accustomed to, and I like it much better than English money.”

The other letter is from James R. Kendrick, a sergeant in Company B, who wrote to The Tennessean less than a month after the war’s end. It ran in the Nashville newspaper on December 8, 1918, under the headline Nashville Soldier Wants to Get Home. Apparently there was a girl waiting for him there.

“I landed in January of this year,” Kendrick wrote. “After arriving over here, I was placed in the 14th Engineers, a railway operating regiment … which was in the first bunch of Americans to land in France. We were lucky enough to be in the big drive at Cambrai March 21, as we were with the British at that time, and believe me, we had plenty of experience of real war, and we were again lucky to be the first troops to pull in to Chateau-Thierry after Fritz was driven out and followed the boys right up to Fere-en-Tardenois. …

“I hope to see dear old Nashville next year some time. Would like to see old Broadway this afternoon, after working for the Bearden Buggy Company for a couple of years. It seemed like home to me, although I happen to hail from Birmingham, Ala., but my heart is in Nashville on Russell Street, where the grandest little woman in the world is. You can tell the world that Tennessee can’t be beat for girls.”

After reading these letters, I couldn’t help but wonder what became of Joe Riggie and James Kendrick, who had served our country “over there.”

They were working on the railroad – and blunting German attack

Pfc. Cunningham with cooks

Pfc. George F. Cunningham (second from right) of Company B, 14th Engineers, with the cooks of Company I during the First World War.

A few years after the First World War ended, a British commander wrote glowingly of the U.S. Army railroaders who served alongside his troops on the Western Front. The 14th Engineers, he said, were “gallant New Englanders” who not only kept up a lifeline to the Allies but threw themselves into the fight when catastrophe loomed.

I’m connected to one of those gallant doughboys, but he wasn’t from New England and he wasn’t a railroad man.

George Cunningham, circa 1917

George Cunningham, circa 1917

Most of the regiment’s 1,200 men had been recruited from New England railroads and arrived in France in August 1917, just four months after the U.S. declared war on Germany. The Americans did not yet have a command structure in place in France, so the engineers were attached to Britain’s 6th Army Corps and went immediately to the front. Their job was to build, operate and maintain “light” or narrow-gauge railroads.

“At the time the 14th Engineers came under my command, our failure to recognize earlier the urgent need for light railways was being repaired, but the personnel necessary to operate them was lacking,” wrote Major-General Aylmer Haldane, commander of the 6th Corps. “The arrival, however, of our comrades from across the Atlantic speedily changed the aspect of affairs in this respect, and soon in many directions trains were carrying men, supplies and materiel from the railhead at Boisleux-au-Mont to the vicinity of the forward trenches.”

Boisleux-au-Mont is just south of Arras, about 70 miles from the English Channel. The British were holding the line there when, early in 1918, the Germans launched a blockbuster offensive intending to break through, march to the sea and end the war.

AP story about book on 14th Engineers

An Associated Press story about British Major-General Aylmer Haldane’s book on the 14th Engineers. This clip is from The Morning News of Wilmington, Delaware, dated June 30, 1923. I found it on Newspapers.com.

On March 27, 1918, six days after the Germans began their great push, a 22-year-old carpenter from West Chester, Pennsylvania, joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France. He was my great-uncle George F. Cunningham, assigned as a replacement to Company B, 14th Engineers, in the face of the German juggernaut.

In his book “History of the Fourteenth Engineers, U.S. Army, from May 1917 to May 1919,” Haldane wrote: “The oncoming wave of Germans bore down for a time all endeavors to oppose it, and when at length it was brought to a standstill, the light railways in front of the corps, from railhead to the forward trenches, had changed hands. Now was the opportunity for the 14th Engineers, who at the critical moment proved that, while they could operate railways with all the skill required, they could as readily handle a rifle and share in the greater dangers of the firing line.

“I can vividly recall my chief engineer, Brigadier-General Harvey, reporting to me how stubbornly the 14th Engineers had taken part with the British infantry in helping to storm the onrush of the German troops, and my pride in having those gallant New Englanders under my command.”

George Cunningham's binoculars, Paul Fussell's book and Army portrait of George

George Cunningham’s Army binoculars, the Army portrait of him and Paul Fussell’s 1975 book about the British experience on the Western Front

It’s not clear how much of this combat my great-uncle engaged in. So far as I know, he did not leave behind any accounts of his experience in the Great War. But his discharge certificate lists the “battles, engagements, skirmishes, expeditions” he participated in as the Somme Defensive – the push-back against the Germans’ all-out drive — from April 20 to May 20, 1918, and the Aisne-Marne campaign from July 18 to August 6, 1918.

A private first class, he remained with the 14th Engineers in France until April 27, 1919, five months after the armistice. He was honorably discharged in May 1919 at Camp Dix, New Jersey. In June, back home in Chester County, he married Ethyl Mae Pierce, one of my maternal grandmother’s older sisters. He died at age 58 in 1953, the year before I was born.

George Cunningham at 1934 family reunion

George Cunningham with his wife, Ethyl (lower left), at a family reunion August 26, 1934, in Colora, Maryland

From what my older relatives have told me, he was a taciturn soul given to raising pigeons. An aunt told me that she heard he was gassed in France, but his records don’t mention it, saying only that he was never wounded and left the service in good physical condition. I have one item of his that he gave to my grandfather: Army-issue binoculars that got nicked when I dropped them down concrete steps some 50 years ago.

Haldane’s book was privately printed in Boston in 1923. I first saw it in 1997 at the U.S. Army Military History Institute (now the U.S. Army Heritage & Education Center) in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. Recently, while mining the research website Newspapers.com, I found an Associated Press story that was written when Haldane’s work was published. It ran in newspapers across the country.

The 14th Engineer Regiment was transferred from the British 6th Corps to the U.S. Army in August 1918. According to the AP story, it was led by a railroad executive from the Midwest, Lt. Col. Albert T. Perkins. His battalion commanders were Maj. B.W. Guppy, bridge engineer of the Boston & Maine Railroad, and Maj. D.S. Brigham, trainmaster of the Boston & Albany Railroad.