Historian Seeks Help on WWI Stories

WORCESTER, Mass. — A century after Worcester soldiers marched off to France to fight in World War I, a new call has gone out for volunteers.

The summons is for local people with a love of history. They’re being asked to uncover stories of the men and women from Worcester who gave their lives in the great world conflict that President Wilson called “the war to end all wars.”

Linda N. Hixon, a history instructor at Worcester State University, is inviting people in the community to join her students in a new project to research every name on the wall of the Worcester Memorial Auditorium.
“I would love to get 20 or 30 people to do a guy or two,” she says.

The names of more than 350 servicemen and women from Worcester who died in the final year of the 1914-18 World War or in the influenza epidemic afterward are recorded on a commemorative wall at the Worcester Auditorium, dedicated in 1933 as a memorial to the city’s sons and daughters who served the nation in wartime.

The World War I Biography Project is the latest for Hixon and her Worcester State history students. Last year they researched the 398 names on the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, the Civil War monument on Worcester Common that was restored and rededicated in July.

Now the hope is to chronicle the 355 names at the Worcester Auditorium. Or the 353 names. There is some discrepancy, Ms. Hixon says: While the 1933 dedication book cites 355, she said, she has counted only 353. Perhaps the project will turn up the missing two, she said.

The names on the auditorium wall include that of Army Sgt. Cornelius Kelley- misspelled, without the “E” -the namesake of Kelley Square, who was awarded the Silver Star and the French Croix de Guerre for valor, and who died after a mustard gas attack at Verdun in October 1918.

Another is that of Cpl. Homer J. Wheaton, sports editor at the Worcester Evening Gazette, who was the first soldier from Worcester to die in the war. In February 1918 at Chemin-Des-Dames, France, Cpl. Wheaton saved the lives of nine men when he threw himself on a live grenade. His family received his Distinguished Service Medal and Croix de Guerre. The square at Salisbury and Grove streets is named for him, as is Homer Wheaton Street, its name changed from Berlin Street after the war.

Two women’s names are on the wall, Ms. Hixon observes. Olive Norcross and Aurelia Wyman, from two of the city’s most prominent families, were nurses who died of influenza, she said.

She notes the wall has more Johnsons (11) than Smiths (seven) or Millers (three). “We’re wondering if that is because there was such a Swedish population (here) and they Americanized their names (from) maybe Johansson or Jorgensen,” she said, exclaiming: “I don’t know!”

These are the type of stories she hopes to recover.

Thirteen Worcester State undergraduates are enrolled in the World War I Biography Project class. The hope is to publish the stories in a book to be completed by late summer or early fall, in time for Armistice Day on Nov. 11.
“It would be great to have the public involved in this,” she said. “It would be a great help if people took on even one soldier.”

This year marks the centennial of the United States’ involvement in World War I. America entered the war on the Allied side on April 6, 1917, but the first American troops did not land in France until late summer and early fall of that year.

“I think World War I truly is a forgotten war for Americans,” she said. “They’ve been celebrating the centenary of this war since (2014) in Europe. It was such a huge deal over there. Over here it’s an 18-month war- we’re in, we’re out, we’re done.”

The greatest war the world had seen to that point in history decimated an entire generation of Europeans while paving the way for horrors to come in an even larger world war 25 years later.

Historians estimate up to 10 million men died on the battlefield and another 20 million were wounded. On the Allied side, the British Empire lost 900,000, France 1.4 million, and Russia 1.7 million, while among the Central Powers, Germany lost 1.8 million and Austria-Hungary 1.29 million.

The United States lost 116,000 in the final year of the conflict. The monthlong Meuse-Argonne Offensive in the fall of 1918- in which Private John F. Brosnihan, namesake of Brosnihan Square at Millbury and Harding streets, lost his life – killed more Americans than any battle in U.S. history, 26,277, while wounding 95,786 more.

In a year, Worcester lost almost almost as many servicemen as it did in four years of the Civil War. Yet for many here, memories of what was known at the time as the Great War have faded, Ms. Hixon said.

“Here we are at the 100th anniversary and have you heard anything about it? In Europe it’s a huge deal. For us, it really was kind of a blip. We think more of World War II. These were the fathers of the guys who fought in World War II. A lot of baby boomers remember their grandfathers who served. And those stories are being lost.”

A panel of the grand mural painted by Leon Kroll in the memorial chamber of the Auditorium depicts American soldiers fighting in the trenches of France in their steel pie-plate helmets. The mural was unveiled at the end of May 1941. Six months later, American soldiers, in helmets left over from the First World War, would be called back to battle.
Today, the magnificent classical auditorium with its Art Deco ornamentation stands vacant, shuttered by the city for the past 19 years.

“Look at the size of this building,” Hixon said on a visit to the hall this week, her voice echoing across the vast, empty memorial chamber.

“They thought, ‘This was ‘the war to end all wars’- we’re going to put up a huge monument. And here we’ve got an empty building and people don’t remember these names.

“I would like people to remember the names,” she said.

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