Area residents played an honorable role in World War I, which ended 100 years ago.
by Jodie Mozdzer and Gil Cindy Simoneau
photography by Vern Williams and courtesy of the State Library
As the RMS Lusitania pulled out of Pier 54 in New York on May 1, 1915, headed to Liverpool, England, Theodate Pope for the first time read the warning Germany had issued against traveling across the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the United States was not yet involved in World War I, American passengers aboard British ships were at risk of attack from German submarines surrounding England.
“I said to Mr. [Edwin] Friend, ‘That means, of course, that they intend to get us,’” Pope, 48, later wrote in a letter to her mother.
The Farmington resident was right – and six days later, she was fighting for her life in the waters off the coast of Ireland after a German submarine sank the ship. After securing a life belt and jumping off the fast-sinking ship, Pope became trapped underwater between the ship’s decks.
“I was swallowing and breathing the salt water, but felt no special discomfort nor anguish of mind – was strangely apathetic,” recalled Pope, who then was knocked unconscious.
Presumed dead when pulled out of the water, Pope was resuscitated “with great difficulty after prolonged effort,” according to her personal legal documents from a lawsuit against Germany. She was one of 763 people to survive of the roughly 1,960 aboard. Her colleague, Edwin Friend, also of Farmington, and her maid, Emily Robinson, both died that day.
“She was furious at the German government because they did that, and she suffered so mightily, and that’s why she sued them,” says Melanie Bourbeau, curator at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, where Pope’s life is detailed. One of the first female architects in the United States, Pope designed her home there in 1901.
In 1925, she won a settlement of $19,850 from her lawsuit against the Germans.
She was only one of the thousands of Connecticut residents with connections to World War I, which ended 100 years ago on Nov. 11, 1918.
CONNECTICUT STEPS UP
Connecticut is a small state that had a major impact on the United States’ ability to respond in April 1917, when Congress declared war on Germany.
The Nutmeg state sent more than 26,000 residents to fight, produced billions of bullets for small arms, and raised more than $100 million in war bonds to support the effort.
Researchers in New London developed new submarine detection. Artists and poets across the state later detailed the war through their work. In fact, two of the eight war artists commissioned by the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I called Connecticut home: J. Andre Smith lived in Branford before and after the war, and Henry Everett Townsend settled in Norwalk after the war.
George Seymour Godard, Connecticut’s State Librarian before and during the war, took special interest in cataloging the efforts for future generations, so the state has one of the largest local World War I collections in the country.
And more recently, since 2014, the State Library has continued the effort to tell local stories of the war through its Remembering World War I project, led by Christine Pittsley. The project catalogs letters, photos and other World War I documents brought to the State Library by Connecticut residents. Pittsley and her team have held more than 40 intake sessions, called “digitization days,” where they welcome the public to tell their family members’ stories.
“We’ve reached so many people in the state. We’ve raised so much awareness over the importance of World War I, not only among the public, but among teachers and students,” Pittsley says. “We’ve made a very large contribution to the national dialogue over World War I, as well.”
The State Library has collected more than 4,000 war-related objects in the past four years, and collected details about more than 400 people who served in some capacity. Journalism students and faculty from Southern Connecticut State University have been turning the individual stories into articles, which can be found at ctinworldwar1.org. Many of the details in this story come from the student and faculty work.
The Remembering World War I project has uncovered unique stories from across the state, including the following profiles produced by students and faculty members at Southern.
Pvt. Walter Patrick Moran of Norwich was saved by his friend Irving Bogue, after Bogue realized he was still breathing in a body bag after a battle in February 1918.
Dominic Palermo, after losing his brother Nicholas during the war and suffering shrapnel and mustard gas injuries, went on to help charter the first American Legion Post in New Haven.
Joseph M. Park of New Haven enlisted in the 102nd Infantry Regiment before World War I, starting a three-generation tradition of family members serving with the same unit.
Torrington resident Paul Maynard lived to see the last day of the war, but died before it ended.
Cpl. Timothy Ahearn, 19, of New Haven, was suddenly left commanding his troop when all its officers and sergeants were killed during battle. He came home a decorated war veteran.
COUNTING THE READY
Connecticut’s then-governor, Marcus H. Holcomb, had readied the state for war even before the United States joined. In February 1917, the state legislature approved a military census to determine the preparedness of Connecticut’s residents to support a war effort, including skilled tasks at home.
Questions were aimed at finding out the trade or occupation of each respondent, how many dependents they supported, their military background, and other more specific questions such as whether they could ride a horse or motorcycle, or knew anything about coastal navigation or sailing.
“We needed to be ready because the eventuality was that we were going to go to war,” Pittsley explains. “With the manpower census especially, he wanted to be able to protect the munitions workers from possible draft.”
Perhaps the most famous among those who responded was William Howard Taft, who at 59 years old was a former U.S. president teaching law at Yale University, a couple years before being nominated to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.
Could he ride a horse?
“Yes,” Taft answered, “but hard on the horse.”
At the same time, the state also tracked which nurses were prepared to serve.
When the United States joined the war, nearly 5,000 women were ready to serve as nurses on the battlefields and at home, according to the 1918 report based on the surveys.
And when Connecticut residents returned from war, the state again queried them in the military questionnaire of 1919. Connecticut was one of four states to do so, asking them about their feelings on the war, in addition to their service details.
CONNECTICUT INDUSTRY TAKES THE LEAD
Connecticut’s cities collectively made massive contributions to the war efforts, from Hartford, Meriden, Manchester and New Britain to New Haven, Bridgeport, Waterbury and Danbury. These manufacturing hubs retooled their production facilities to meet the demands of European armies and later, those of the United States’ military forces.
“Every city in the state was making munitions,” says Pittsley. “Even before the U.S. involvement, Connecticut had the best handle on its manufacturing abilities.”
Bridgeport factories – including the Remington Arms-Union Metallic Cartridge Company – alone produced two billion .30-06 cartridges, and 1.2 billion shells of other sizes.
By 1918, Colt’s Patent Fire Arms “was devoted to the war,” and in “full-throttle mode,” according to author David Drury in Hartford in World War I.
Many other war-related manufacturing efforts helped equip troops, including portions of other fighting implements such as gas masks, bayonets, and silk for parachutes and uniforms.
The rise of Hartford as the nation’s insurance capital was also seen during the war, with companies such as Aetna and Metropolitan insuring soldiers’ lives and Liberty Bond payments.
STUDENTS, WOMEN AND ATHLETES
As war efforts ramped up, Connecticut residents from all walks of life got involved. Colleges were especially active in helping. Yale University, Wesleyan University, the University of Connecticut, and Trinity College each had training programs during the school year. In June 1918, 40 of the 50 graduating students from Trinity didn’t attend class day because they were in active training or service, according to a Hartford Courant article. Yale had the most students enlisted, the Courant reported.
One Boston Red Sox player even missed the 1918 World Series to serve his country. That’s the year the Red Sox won over the Chicago Cubs – Boston’s last World Series title until 2004. John Joseph “Jack” Barry, a Meriden native, was close to Fenway Park, serving with the Navy reserves at Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston, but couldn’t leave to play in the World Series.
In addition to women taking roles in factories during the war, several stepped up as leaders, both on the home front and on the front lines.
For example, Jessie Weston Fisher, a Portland native, left her husband and a successful medical career, shipped her 13-year-old son off to boarding school, and boarded a ship to serve in the war as a doctor at a Red Cross Hospital in Beauvais, France.
Katharine Houghton Hepburn, mother of the Academy Award winning actress of the same name, was president of the Connecticut Woman Suffrage Association, based in Hartford. The family, for many years, owned a shoreline home in the Fenwick section of Old Saybrook.
ANIMALS, TOO, PLAYED A ROLE
One of the most famous heroes of World War I is Sgt. Stubby, a dog who trained and traveled to the battlefields with members of the 26th Yankee Division, 102nd regiment from New Haven, and became the division’s official mascot. In the trenches, Stubby would not only warn the soldiers about mustard gas attacks, but find, comfort and seek help for wounded soldiers.
“Stubby is a symbol of the many thousands upon thousands of animals used in WWI. It’s truly horrible to think about the ways in which horses and donkeys were abused in war – laden with heavy machinery and munitions, struggling through the mud, often gunned down and bombed alongside their soldiers,” says historian Laura A. Macaluso, who researched the war for her book, New Haven in World War I.
“Stubby, most thankfully, offers another view into the use of animals during wartime: beyond his abilities to sniff out gas attacks, the real reason people respond to Stubby’s story is because of the companionship and love between him and his doughboy and owner, Cpl. J. Robert Conroy of New Haven. In the midst of great calamity, animals provide humans with solace, and almost everyone can relate to that,” says Macaluso.
After the war, Stubby led many veterans in parades through Boston, New York and Washington, D.C., met three U.S. presidents, and received numerous medals for heroism, earning him the designation of the most decorated dog in U.S. Army history. He is said to be the model for the Georgetown University mascot, where Conroy later attended. Stubby is enshrined in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. An animated movie of his life was released in April.
KNIGHTS OF COLUMBUS
Relief and troop support in Europe were provided by The Red Cross and by other Connecticut philanthropic and religious organizations. One of the major contributors was the Knights of Columbus, created and based in New Haven in 1882.
The Knights of Columbus says 100,000 of its members were involved, both on the battlefields and by offering support and comfort to troops. Among its most impressive feats was raising war funds; by the end of the war, its contributions totaled $14 million.
The Knights of Columbus has detailed its involvement and much of the war’s history at its museum’s “World War I: Beyond the Front Lines” exhibit, open through December.
KEEPING THE MEMORY ALIVE
In Farmington, the commitment of those who served in the war is commemorated in the five-column Veterans’ Memorial in front of Town Hall.
The memorial recognizes those residents who died in all U.S. battles. Dedicated in 1992, it honors these who died from 1917 to 1921 as the result of injuries sustained in World War I: Philip E. Bergin, Paul Dimona, Ernest W. Gustafson, Louis C. Hanrahan, Richard W. Ibell, Harold W. Joyce, James Palache, and Christopher H. Rourke. It is among hundreds of WWI monuments across the state.
Farmington’s Civil War, World War I, World War II, and Vietnam heroes are also honored by monuments, located in Riverside Cemetery on Garden Street.
Jodie Mozdzer Gil is an associate professor and Cindy Simoneau is chairperson of the Journalism Department at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. Research from Southern journalism students is included in this report.
The U.S. World War One Centennial Commission last year recognized the Journalism Department at Southern for its work telling the stories as part of the collaboration with the Connecticut State Library.