Divergent Departures – Company A and Company I Leave for the Great War in August 1917

 

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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.

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Reading Times announcing the transfer of Captains Kestner & Miller

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.

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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.

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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 251917 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. 

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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.

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. 

 

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.

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. 

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.

War Bonds for Liberty: WWI Collection

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WWI Era Advertisement for Liberty Bonds from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

During the Great War, or the “War to End All Wars,” public support at home was crucial to the success of our troops overseas.

The Liberty Loan drive was devised to help cover the expenses of the United States war effort. There were five loan drives in total during the Great War, the last ending in 1919. The poster shown is by Joseph Pennell from the fourth loan drive, depicting what would happen to the home front if the civilian population did not buy war bonds. New York harbor is ablaze, German air fighters rule the sky, Lady Liberty’s head has been severed and lays in the harbor, with the German Eagle standing proudly at her feet, and a U-boat patroling the harbor. If this horrific scene didn’t make the public buy war bonds, what would?

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Victory Liberty Loan Medallion from the Berks History Center Museum Collection

The fourth Liberty Bond ultimately wound up defaulting, as the terms of the bond were payable in U.S. gold coin at maturity in 1938. Unfotunately for bond holders, Franklin Roosevelt eliminated the gold market in 1933. Bond holders wound up losing approximately 41% of the bonds principal.

The U.S. Treasury commissioned the Victory Liberty Loan Medallion shown above in conjunction with the 5th loan drive of 1919. The medallion was made from a German cannon captured at Chateau-Thierry in north west France. The medal was awarded by the Department of Treasury to victory Liberty Loan campaign volunteers.

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. 

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)