The First to Answer the Call in the Great War – American Doctors and Nurses

When the United States entered the Great War on April 6, 1917, the nation was hardly prepared to wage war against Germany, the main force on the Western Front from the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria). The US Army was small and after the Selective Service Act of 1917, it drafted 2.8 million men into the service. The men drafted had to be trained before being mobilized to Europe, which didn’t begin to make its impact in Europe until the fall of 1917.

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WWI Red Cross Recruitment Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) began arriving in France in June of 1917. The first Americans to arrive in Europe to aid the Allies were not our military troops – it was the Doctors and the nurses of the American Red Cross. The doctors and nurses of the American Red Cross began their humanitarian mission as early as 1914 aboard a donated cruise ship painted white with a red cross that was recognized as a “Mercy Ship”.  One Reading nurse, Emma B. Loose of 1442 Spruce Street, made the initial journey.

John Wanamaker donated 2,000 tons of food and clothing that left Philadelphia on the mercy ship “Thelma.” The Reading Times article described Wanamaker “cheering like a schoolboy” at the dock as the “Thelma” left port. By September 1915, public sentiment against the war closed the American hospitals, recalling the personnel back to the States. Some chose to remain and sign on with the countries they supported while in Europe. Once America entered the war, doctors and nurses were once again recalled to the battlefront.

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Nurses from Reading arrived in Great Britain and France in May of 1917. Like the AEF, their impact was immediate and highly appreciated by the French and British. Carrie Albright of Reading wrote in a letter to her mother Mrs. Alfred S. Albright,  of 635 Pear St., received on June 28, 1917 that she did not know her destination and could not reveal her location in subsequent letters for security purposes. Other Reading girls in Carrie’s unit Red Cross #10 were Misses Florence Burkey, Eva Gerhard and Emily Holmes. Three other Reading girls sailed in late June with Army base hospital 34. They were Mary L. Bonawitz, 615 Church St, Amanda I. Heistand and Mary K. Lotz. Misses Bonawitz and Heistand graduated from the Episcopal Hospital training school for nurses in Philadelphia.

Florence Burkey of 152 West Oley St. reported in a letter published in the Reading Eagle on July 10, 1917 of her 100 mile, 9 hour journey to her destination in France. She also reported that as a nurse, under English law, she was unable to give anesthetics to the patients. At the Reading Hospital back home, Florence was an anesthesiologist. On general duty, Florence worked very hard to the point of exhaustion on a daily basis. She was thankful for the opportunity to have close contact with the patients, describing them as brave and uncomplaining. She also described them as terribly wounded. It was her hope that the United States could stop the war so our soldiers can be spared from the horrible slaughter. Burkey served at base hospital #10 on night duty.

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WWI Red Cross War Fund Campaign Poster from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The Red Cross did not see the trenches in the Great War, but they were not far from it. The immediate aid in the trenches was performed by the military medics in the field, who transported the wounded to the front line casualty clearing stations or forward units where the Red Cross took over. Once there, the casualties were prepared for transport to base hospitals in the rear. The clearing stations and base hospitals were subject to enemy air attacks, with nurses suffering over 200 casualties themselves during the course of the war, with most casualties coming from disease. According to the  “The Heroism of Reading & Berks County” published by the Reading Eagle, three Berks County nurses and one doctor died during the war. The casualties included: Nurse Eleanora Cassidy of 1045 N. 4th Street, Nurse Mary J. Scheirer of 1033 N 5th Street, Nurse Marie Hidell, and Dr. Ralph L. Hammond. All three passed on U.S. soil. The Red Cross nurses served in the Great War without rank or commission, something that changed by the next time the United states was involved in a world conflict.

Written and Researched by Richard Polityka

 

WWI: Life in the Trenches for the Berks County Boys

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US Food Adminstration Poster, WWI; BHC Museum Collection

Despite a lack of preparedness, the United States officially entered the Great War in April of 1917, providing support to our allies with troops which were desperately needed at the front lines.

The American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), led by General Pershing, desperately needed training before they were deployed to the battlefields of France.  The first wave of the AEF arrived in France by June of 1917, with their first involvement in the conflict occurring late in October 1917.

The first two companies from Reading to answer the call of duty were Company A and Company I, who left the city in late August 1917 to be stationed in France.. However, this Reading contingent did not see France until December 1917 and did not make it to the trenches until March of 1918 as part of the 42 Division (Company I).

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Whatever training our boys received prior to embarking to France could have hardly prepared them for the horrors that trench warfare presented to the soldiers. The Berks History Center’s Museum collection helps to tell the story of their challenging experiences.  Pictured above, these artifacts were some of the basic necessities of life in the trenches including: a complete mess kit with the name “Marks” carved into each utensil and the lid, a gas mask in a canvas bag, a gas mask container, a complete shaving kit and a trench checkers kit. Looking at each item paints a picture of life fighting in the Great War.

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Reading Times, November 28, 1917.

The first Reading casualty in the Great War occurred on November 20th, when Charles S Rissmiller, of 1321 Moss Street, who served in the field artillery with the AEF in France under General Pershing, was killed when a shell exploded near his station. When news reached his mother Clara Rissmiller at her residence at 1240 Clover Street on November 27th, Mayor Edward H Filbert ordered all flags to be flown at half mast for ten days in honor of the city’s first casualty.

Article Written and Researched by Richard Polityka

Keeping Our Soldiers Informed: An Act of Service During WWII

During WWII, The Reading Eagle published weekly newspapers and sent them to Berks Countians serving overseas. Did you know that another group of local residents created their own publication to send to Berks natives during the war? The Berks History Center is fortunate to have many of these monthly newsletters in our Research Library collection!

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The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces, October 1943. (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)

When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, a non-profit organization called the The United Service Organizations (U.S.O.) was founded at the request of President Franklin Roosevelt. The organization’s purpose was to boost morale of troops fighting in World War II.  Shortly after the war began, a group of citizens from Berks County decided to enclose a note to servicemen along with the stationary provided by the U.S.O. The group invited local servicemen to write to them in order to keep up with news from home.

The response was overwhelming, so D.R. Shenton and Claire Henry decided to start a newsletter that could be mass produced, instead of writing to each soldier individually. They called it “The Writers’ Service To The Armed Forces.” Shenton acted as editor and Henry kept up with correspondence as secretary. Their first official newsletter went out on September 1, 1942. Each newsletter included news about local events, the merits of local soldiers (Lt. General Carl Spaatz’s name appeared often) and a special sports section.

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A V-Mail Letter thanking Claire Henry for The Writers’ Service (AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection” in the BHC Research Library)

 

Local organizations, like churches, clubs, and unions could sponsor copies of the newsletter to send out to their members. Henry wrote to a friend in England that the newsletters and other correspondence were constant work, however the men seemed to enjoy them and appreciate their work. Letters steadily came in from Berks County natives expressing their thanks—most of their correspondence also included change of address information so they would continue to receive the latest news. The Writers’ Service continued sending newsletters, at least until V-J Day in August 1945. There is no record of The Writers’ Service in any local publication, including the Reading Eagle or The Historical Review of Berks County.

Claire Henry, secretary of The Writers’ Service, was an antique collector and antiques dealer. She corresponded with friends in England, often about the latest piece they found in London, and if she wanted them to send it to her in Pennsylvania. One of her shipments in 1942, was sunk by enemy fire while sailing across the Atlantic. Claire noted how disappointed she was that good antiques ended up on the ocean floor. Henry lived in West Lawn, a suburb of Reading. Her sister, Margaret Henry Moeller, stayed with Henry while her husband, A.R. Moeller, served in the war. It is likely their mother and sister lived there as well. Henry died at the age of 101, in 1995. According to her obituary, she lived in Indiana for many years, where she ran a ceramics shop, before returning to Berks County.

D.R. Shenton went on to act as co-editor for The Historical Review for over ten years. He never wrote an article about his work on the newsletters. He died on May 9, 1962.

AC 80 “Letters from the Homefront Collection, which contains these materials, is available to use for research at The Berks History Center Research Library.

Article Written & Researched by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik.

Before E-Mail There Was V-Mail: War Letters in WWII

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It is not uncommon to find letters written during wartime–either in archival collections or in personal collections kept within the family.

During World War II, you might have received or sent a letter in the “V-mail” (“Victory mail”) format. Letters were written on special paper and then microfilmed to reduce space. The microfilm rolls were shipped and reproduced at another location, and then delivered to the intended recipient.

Although traditional first class mail was preferred, over 1 billion pieces of V-mail were sent and received during WWII!  We have a few pieces of V-mail in the Berks History Center’s Research Library. The letter pictured above was written to thank a local group for producing newsletters and sending them to Berks servicemen around the world.

​(V-mail letter, Berks History Center Library, AC 80)

Researched & Written by Archivist Stephanie Mihalik

Summer in Berks: Andalusia Hall & Park

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Andalusia Hall & Park started as a farmhouse owned by the Maderia Family. Around 1865 they converted their home to a summer boarding house. Its location across from Charles Evans Cemetery, along what is now Centre Avenue, made it easily accessible for locals and visitors. Later owners converted it to a public house and park. One owner, Julius Hertwig, built a 2,000 seat bandshell in the lower area of the property. The Ringgold Band alternated with other local artists to play two to three concerts per week. There were also facilities for banquets and theatrical performances. In 1891, James H. Sternbergh purchased the property and tore down the Hall and park facilities to built his mansion, which is now the Stirling Guest Hotel at Robeson St. and Centre Ave.
 
(From the BHC Library’s Photograph Collection)

Sousa’s Signature: A Legend’s Final Note in Reading, PA

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John Philip Sousa (1854-1932) was a renowned American musician, composer and conductor whose music is celebrated to this day. While he led both the United States Marine Band and the United States Naval Reserve Band, he is probably better known for leading his own “Sousa Band” which he established in 1892. According to his obituary in the New York Times, the Sousa Band “covered an aggregate itinerary of a million and a quarter miles, visiting nearly every city in this country, a great many in Europe and others in all parts of the world”.

On the Saturday afternoon of March 5th, 1932, Sousa’s travels brought him to Reading, Pennsylvania.  He was in the city to conduct the Ringgold Band on the occasion of its eightieth anniversary concert, scheduled for the following afternoon. His busy itinerary began with a three-hour rehearsal at the American Legion Building at 133 North Fourth Street and was followed by an 8pm banquet at the Wyomissing Club. Unfortunately, he died of a heart attack, shortly after midnight that evening, in his room at the Abraham Lincoln hotel.

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One of the most interesting artifacts of the visit is a surviving dinner menu from the Wyomissing Club banquet which contains a copy of Sousa’s autograph. The menu belonged to Andrew J. Fisher (1899-1963) of Mohnton, the Ringgold Band’s first trombonist.  Fisher wrote that “ this is the last autograph that Mr. Sousa gave to anyone.  He died about one hour after he obliged me with this signature at the Abraham Lincoln hotel, March, 1932…  He was already feeling bad at this time…  I played under him for the last note he ever conducted (The Stars & Stripes Forever).”

Interestingly, a Reading Times article published on March 7, 1932 reveals how Fisher learned the news of Sousa’s passing. It explains that “Andrew Fisher, Ringgold Band trombone soloist, had just arrived home in Mohnton from the banquet and turned on the radio….  He settled down to listen to a program of Mexican music when the announcer said ‘Ladies and gentlemen, we are deeply grieved to announce the death of John Philip Sousa, in Reading, PA, just two hours after he attended a banquet in his honor there’.”

It was fortuitous that a trombone player from Mohnton was one of the last people to interact with an American musical icon. It was also fortuitous that Fisher’s daughter, Rachel Herb, donated this unique artifact of her father’s encounter with John Philip Sousa.

Article Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith

A Sign of the Times: Uncovering More Berks County History

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New research is shedding light on an artifact which is currently on display at the Berks History Center.  The artifact belonged to George E. Haak (1842-1915) of Reading.

After serving in the Civil War, Haak found employment as a “digger”.  However, by 1870 he was working in the dry goods store of his father-in-law, Amos Potteiger (1824-1897), which operated at 310 Penn Street.  It appears that by 1877, he was running an independent China & Glass business within his father-in-law’s store.  It also appears that by 1882 he had moved his china and glass business into its own location, next door at 312 Penn Street, while his father-in-law continued operating the dry goods store at 310 Penn Street.

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The sign was presumably made in the early 1870s, while Haak was still working from his father-in-law’s store.  The sign is marked “Baker” and we assume that this refers to William B. Baker (1850-1920), a painter who lived at 27 South 11th Street in Reading.

Researched & Written by Curator Bradley K. Smith