The story of Company A and Company I of Reading, Pennsylvania is a story that can easily become confused. Company I was organized in Reading in June of 1898 during the Spanish-American War.
During the Mexican Border crisis in 1916, the United States was tasked with capturing or killing Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa after he attacked the border town of Columbus, New Mexico. Company I was part of the 117,000 National Guardsmen that were stationed along the Mexican–U.S. border. It was during this exercise that the Zimmerman telegram was intercepted. The interception alerted the U.S. government that Germany had encouraged Mexico to enter WWI on the side of the Central Powers, which eventually led the United States to enter the war against Germany.
Company A was part of the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry division, which had its roots in Company I. After being detached from the 4th Pennsylvania Infantry, Company I remained intact and established a machine gun company for the First Composite National Guard. Both Companies were stationed at the Armory on 325 Walnut St.
In an effort to make commanding officers strangers to the men they led, Captain Edward V. Kestner (originally Company A) and Captain Charles L. Miller (originally Company I) were ordered to exchange commands of their companies. Company A was to leave first, embarking on a journey to Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia to prepare the camp for the rest of the regiment. Company I was next to leave with its destination Mineola on Long Island, the mobilization point for 26 states that would compose the division heading to France.
Company A left Reading on August 20th 1917 to the grandest show of patriotism Reading had ever seen. A crowd estimated at 40,000 people lined the parade route as an escort marched from the Chamber of Commerce to the Armory, to meet the departing soldiers. The escort consisted of mounted policemen, Mayor Filbert, City Councilmen, The Rotary Club, the Chamber of Commerce, members of the Reading Orioles and their visiting Orioles from Buffalo NY, the citizens patriotic committee and the Ringgold Band. Once they made their way to the Armory, the crowd was joined by Company I, who acted as escort for the departing Company A. The parade route ran up Walnut Street to 4th Street, down 4th Street to Penn Street, up Penn Street to 6th Street, and finally out 6th Street to the Outer Station. Thousands of American flags waved. Just about everyone had a flag to show their support.
The parade was met by the Reading Firefighters with all their apparatus on Penn Street. Once the parade emerged on Penn, the firemen sounded their sirens and rang their bells to the roaring cheers of the crowd. The square was a massive blanket of cheering with the farewell salute continuing until the parade left the square and made its way north on 6th Street. As a permanent daily reminder of the departure of Reading’s first troops for service in the war, an immense 24 foot flag was hung in the main dining room of the Mansion House on this day. Mansion House manager, Anson Christ said, “The flag will stay there until the boys come back home again for we know they will uphold the flag wherever they may be and we will be proud of them and thinking of them every day they are absent from Reading.” The raising of the flag in such a position followed a precedent at the Mansion House that dates back to the Civil War when a similar gesture was made in honor of the First Defenders in 1861.
Once at the Outer Station, the crowd from the parade swelled to the point where the station was overrun with a sea of humanity. The overflow crowd climbed roofs and boxcars to get their last glimpse of Company A. Officials kept the platform clear as the soldiers broke rank to spend their last minutes in town with loved ones. The scene as reported in the Reading Eagle was touching: mothers warmly embracing their sons as their fathers stood trying to conceal the pride that swelled inside them. Sweethearts smiling through tears as they took leave of their lover soldiers, pressing keepsakes into their hands to remind them that someone was home waiting for them. The train left the Outer Station at 4:15pm and headed to Augusta, Georgia.
Following the grand send off for Company A, Captain Kestner and Company I departed Reading on August 25, 1917 in total obscurity. The time of departure was never officially made public and the newspapers asked citizens to refrain from coming to see the soldiers depart. The company did not depart from the Outer Station as Company A did. They left on four Philadelphia & Reading Railroad cars that were located close to the Armory on North 3rd Street. The soldiers of Company I did not know what specific time they were leaving until Captain Kestner informed them at noon to say their goodbyes to their parents and loved ones. The company would leave Reading by 2:30pm. At the designated time, the company was called to order for final inspection by Captain Kestner. Then they marched out in rows of four, taking a short hike to the waiting rail cars on North 3rd street. By the time the afternoon Reading Eagle was delivered, the soldiers of Company I were headed on their 8 hour journey to Mineola, NY.
Article written & researched by Richard Polityka
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.