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.

Among the Greats: Victor Nehlig Painting in the BHC Museum Collection

 

Daniel Boone by Nehlig 2.jpgVictor Nehlig (1830-1909) was a French-born painter renowned during his lifetime for historical paintings.  While no longer a household name, Nehlig’s works are preserved in institutions like the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum and even the Berks History Center.

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Berks History Center’s Nehlig painting, shown above, depicts Berks County native Daniel Boone in a frontier scene. This was one of several studies which Nehlig completed while he lived in Frankfurt, Kentucky in the 1870s.  Nehlig hoped to earn a commission painting scenes of the iconic frontiersman for display in the Kentucky State Capitol, but the commission never materialized.

Researched & Written by Bradley K. Smith

Please Welcome Guest Blogger…Joshua Blay

I receive many emails and letters of inquiry from individuals and institutions looking for museum objects to study or loan for exhibit. One of our more popular inquiries regard the USS Reading, the only ship of the United States Navy to be named after Reading, PA.  One of eight identical ships, she was christened and launched on August 28, 1943 in Sturgeon Bay, WI, by Mrs. John C. Butterweck.  Her son Russell M. was among the first killed at the Battle of Guadalcanal, a decisive and successful campaign in the Pacific theater of World War II.  The ship reported for fast convoy escort duty between the United States and European and North 818African ports.  A silver service, consisting of a coffee urn, a teapot, a creamer, a sugar bowl, a tray, and a waste bowl was presented to the officers and crew of the ship at the Abraham Lincoln Hotel on January 25, 1945 on behalf of the city’s business and civic leaders.  She made only two round trips across the Atlantic before the end of the war.  In May 1945 she was converted into a weather ship.  Six months later, the Reading was decommissioned and was later sold to Argentina and renamed Heronia.  Deemed obsolete, she was scrapped in 1966.

We have many artifacts in t5521110bhe museum collection directly related to this ship.  These include the original champagne christening bottle, donated by Mrs. Butterweck in 1983.  The silver service was returned to the area in December 1947.  All the items except for the tray and christening bottle are currently on exhibit.  In the archives of the library are many pieces of original paperwork including newspaper articles and the original programs from the presentation made in January 1945. Incidentally, the silver service remains the property of the United States Navy and the records between the HSBC and the Navy are in the process of being updated.  For more on her history please see Vol. 50, Issue 3 of The Historical Review of Berks County.

In the midst of my research on the USS Reading, I happened to stumble a54515cross a record for object #54-5-15.  What is this object you might ask?  Well, it happens to be a ship’s badge from another naval vessel called Reading, the HMS Reading.   Formerly the naval destroyer USS Bailey, it was one of fifty obsolete destroyers, inactive since the conclusion of World War I, which was transferred to the English Royal Navy through the lend-lease program of World War II.  The USS Bailey had been named after Rear Admiral Theodorus Bailey, a naval officer during the Civil War, who was instrumental in developing thruster systems that many ships use today.  Upon delivery to England, all fifty ships were renamed after both British and United S
tates towns, and because of this, they came to be known as the Town class.

Commissioned on November 26, 1940 the HMS Reading was assigned to escort duty for two years.  From 1942 until the end of the war in 1945, this ship was used for target practice.  Sold for scrap in July 1945, the ship’s badge and a book on the Town class destroyers passed from The Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to the citizens of Reading, England, to Reading, PA, and finally to the HSBC.  According to the Royal Naval Museum, there was never an official directive as to where on a ship its badge should be mounted. The most common location would be somewhere on the centerline of the bridge, though some classes of ship had the badge mounted on the funnel. A copy of the badge would also be mounted on the ship’s “honors board” (a plaque listing the battles in which the vessel had served), which would have been displayed next to the gangway when the ship was in harbor.  The book may easily be found in the library and archive collection.  The badge is currently mounted above the entrance to the director’s office on the first floor of our main building at 940 Centre Avenue.

Joshua K. Blay is an Associate Director and Museum Curator for the Berks History Center.  Volunteering in museums since he was thirteen, Joshua is most interested in industrial and transportation history.