“We should feel even sterner indignation”

First Lieutenant (Dr.) William T. Fitzsimons was an Army surgeon and the first American Army officer killed in the Great War. He died in a German air raid near Pas-de-Calais on 4 September 1917.

In March 2015 I wrote a piece about Theodore Roosevelt and Ernest Hemingway both beginning their careers with the Kansas City Star in October 1917. Colonel Roosevelt’s contract with the Star began on 1 October but he pounded out a few editorials, the first of nearly 120 weekly contributions until his death in January 1919, prior to his official start date. The first Roosevelt article was about Dr. William T. Fitzsimons, a first lieutenant in the Army Medical Reserve Corps killed in France on 4 September 1917. Dr. Fitzsimons was the first United States Army officer killed in the Great War.

I have been writing during the centennial about the career of Dr. Robert D. Schrock, a surgeon with Base Hospital No. 9. Lieutenant Fitzsimons was part of this same desire that many physicians had to tend the wounded. Like Schrock, Fitzsimons was from the Midwest, graduated from medical school just prior to the war, trained as a young doctor in New York City in the early 1910s (in Fitzsimon’s case at Roosevelt Hospital), and sought his way to contribute to the effort. Fitzsimons sailed to Europe on a Red Cross transport ship from Brooklyn’s Bush Terminal in early September 1914 and began working in a hospital in England on 1 October as a civilian volunteer. Dr. Fitzsimons returned to the United States after his stint, taught medicine at the University of Kansas for a time, and joined the military on 27 March 1917, about ten days prior to Congress’s declaration of war. He was sent to France right away.

First Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons (seated far left) in England, circa 1915. On 4 September 1917, the same day that Fitzsimons happened to be killed, the Kansas City Star announced that Theodore Roosevelt was joining its editorial staff. Roosevelt’s first piece was about Fitzsimons and published on 17 September, two weeks before his contract officially began.

Lieutenant Fitzsimons was on staff at Base Hospital No. 5 in near Calais by late August. On the evening of 4 September 1917 he was killed in a German air raid. Roosevelt’s tribute, his first article for the Kansas City Star, appeared on 17 September. Roosevelt hammered away at the two themes that would consume him in the coming months: German brutality and American unpreparedness. Fitzsimons was the first American Army officer to be killed in the First World War. Roosevelt’s tribute one of the first but not the last. Army Hospital 21 in Denver became Fitzsimons Army Hospital in 1920. Ten years after that the young doctor’s mother, Catherine Fitzsimons, traveled from Kansas City to the military cemetery at the Somme to see her son’s resting place. In 1955 First Lady Mamie Eisenhower dedicated an oil painting of Fitzsimons at the Colorado hospital named for him twenty-five years previously. Five years after that author A. A. Hochling published The Fierce Lambs, a history/biography of Lieutenant William T. Fitzsimons, Corporal James Bethel Cresham, Private Thomas F. Enright and Private Merle Hay. The latter three of whom were killed later that fall, the first Americans killed in actual combat. Today some of the personal effects found on Dr. Fitzsimons when he was killed are on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City.

(image/top, Department of Defense; bottom, unknown)


Rededicating the Merle Hay monument

Merle Hay monument rededication, Governors Island: 17 September 2017

One of the most poignant moments at Camp Doughboy this past weekend was the rededication of the Merle Hay monument on Sunday morning. The color guard you see here are active service personnel currently serving in the First Division’s 16th Infantry Regiment. They had come from Fort Riley in Kansas and are the same men who had been in Paris this past July for the ceremonies there. The men in uniform behind them are living historians who had set up camp on the island for the weekend. I snapped the image of the new tablet a few minutes after the unveiling. I thought I would re-up the video we produced a few summers ago about Private Merle B. Hay. It is so good to see that the Hay tablet is back where it belongs.

Private Merle Hay tablet, Governors Island National Monument


Antietam’s 155th

Over the course of the day today at Governors Island, amidst the rededication of the Merle Hay monument, the author talks, and the rest of the programs, many of us noted that today is the 155th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It is hard to believe the sesquicentennial of that event was five years ago. While Americans were preparing for the Great War in summer 1917 they stopped to note the 55th Sharpsburg anniversary. Brooklyn held its own ceremony in Prospect Park on Saturday 15 September. As the headline notes above, there were still plenty of Grand Army Men around at this time. It is worth noting that what we now call Grand Army Plaza was still Prospect Park Plaza; the name change did not come until 1926. Some of the most prominent veterans at the 1917 turnout were Red Legged Devils from Brooklyn’s 14th Infantry Regiment. The juxtaposition of the two headlines, taken from the 16 September issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, reveal how the country was looking backward and forward at the same time.

(image/Brooklyn Daily Eagle)

Sunday morning coffee

Camp Doughboy, Governors Island: September 16, 2017

It was a great day on Governors Island yesterday at Camp Doughboy. I’m having my coffee and listening to Bill Evans before I prepare to head out for today’s events. If you are in the New York City area, come on out for day two. There is much to see, including author talks, monument rededications, and the campground with living historians manning their quarters and speaking about their subject expertize. I visited a good many of them yesterday before and after my lightning talk and found all of the historians to be well-informed and eager to engage. Whether they have restored a period ambulance, built a doughboy’s kit through painstaking research and perseverance, or recount the story of a nurse, to a person they have created a thread that allows us to connect to the people who lived through the Great War. Seeing it al in one place make it that much more extraordinary.

It is the last weekend of summer 2017. Go get some of that sunshine.

(image/World War I Centennial Commission)

Hoping for a swift Key West recovery

The Matecumbe Ferry Slip in Key West after the 1935 Labor Day hurricane. Approximately 250 Great War veterans were killed in the category five storm.

I was teaching a bibliographic instruction class yesterday during which the students and I got into a discussion about Ernest Hemingway and the fortunate fate of his house in Key West this past week. Sadly the rest of the Keys, including the area around Hemingway’s home, have not fared as well. The devastation has been just about total. I emailed a local historian down there on Monday but have not yet heard from him. I discovered his writing, research, and curatorial work last week when following the coverage of Irma. I soon began reading about previous hurricanes that have struck the Sunshine State over the past century. I am still waiting to hear back from the historian, whom I do not know but emailed out of concern. Hopefully he and his family have made out alright.

There is also the matter of his work over the past several decades. In that great spirit for which local historians are renowned, he and his colleagues have been gathering images, documents, and various ephemera relating to the Florida Keys for years now. Several years ago I wrote an encyclopedia article about the 1926 Miami hurricane for a reference book about natural disasters. I was also familiar with the one that followed two years later and destroyed much of the region around Lake Okeechobee. I did not know until last week that hundreds of WW1 veterans were killed in the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that struck the Keys. About 250 Great War veterans, many of them marchers in the Bonus Army, were killed when the New Deal camps in which they were housed when building a bridge were destroyed in the category five hurricane. I am going to write more about this next week. In addition to my concern for the personal safety of the individuals involved, I am worried about the fate of the valuable trove of local material they have preserved and if it is still intact. One would have to think that the historians and librarians involved would realize that another storm could take place any given year and made precautions. Still, a storm like Irma is a once-in-a-century thing. I’m really hoping to learn the fate of the people involved.

(image/Florida Keys–Public Libraries)

The Hemingway House

The Hemingway Home in Key West has survived Hurricane Irma.

Having lived big parts of my life in South Florida and Houston I watched Harvey and Irma unfold with intense concern. Thankfully everyone I know has emerged unscathed. We consider ourselves among the fortunate. I was watching too the fates of various cultural institutions that found themselves in harm’s way. The Menil Collection and Rothko Chapel in Houston seemed especially vulnerable but emerged with no flood damage from Harvey. As Irma bore down on Key West the Hemingway Home seemed destined for major damage or even outright destruction. Hemingway first started going to the Keys in the 1920s, after the First World War and his years in Paris as part of the Lost Generation. He wrote part of The Sun Also Rises in the Keys. It has now been several decades but I remember going there more than once back in the 1970s and 80s. Hemingway seemed so long gone but he had only committed suicide just 15-20 years earlier.

As Irma moved westward the Hemingway Home’s longtime caretakers decided to hold out, much to the consternation of Mariel Hemingway, who urged them to evacuate along with the rest of the residents of the Keys. The staff did not take that advice and held on. Irma is not yet over and many people are still facing serious threat. The assessment and clean-up have yet to begin in the areas that Irma has already touched. And of course it is not just Florida: Texas is still reeling from Harvey and the people of the Caribbean face incredible challenges from Irma. Thankfully there are a few, very few, things for which to be grateful right now. The Hemingway Home along with its dozens of six-toed cats has survived Irma thanks to the dedication of the staff who worked diligently to save the historic structure.

(image/Michelle Maria via Wikimedia Commons)


Sunday morning coffee

Good morning, all. I am sorry about the lack of posts this week. It has been a busy time at work with the new academic year underway. I wanted to remind everyone that Camp Doughboy is taking place next weekend, September 16-17, at Governors Island.  There is a lot to see and do. Author Kevin Fitzpatrick has been the great driving force behind the event and has done incredible work bringing it all together. You can check out the entire schedule here. Note that on Saturday at 1:30 a guy with my initials will be speaking about the Preparedness Movement. If you are in the Greater New York City area, try to come out for what should be an exciting two days with lots to see and do.

Howard R. Haviland plays

Howard R. Haviland of Brooklyn played and taught for the war effort.

Pianist Howard R. Haviland began a series of concerts one hundred years ago today at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The show, put on for about 1200 workers and sailors, was the first in a series Haviland performed under the auspices of the YMCA’s National War Work Council. Haviland and the YMCA had set a high bar: to play at every camp in the United States over late summer and fall. Later that same week Haviland played at camps in Mineola and Hempstead, Long Island; Queens; and upstate at Plattsburg. Haviland was a Brooklynite who spent his summers playing in hotels in New Jersey. (Then and now New Yorkers got out of the Big City in July-August if they could.) Haviland had spent July playing at the Hotel Montclair, where he helped the Red Cross raise $100,000,000 for the war effort.

Haviland noted that “the boys” in the camps preferred lighter tunes to the classical stuff and wanted material with which they were familiar. His sets were heavy on light opera, which is a reminder that opera was not always Opera as we perceive it today: as a distant High Art, something for which you pay top dollar and put on a tuxedo to listen to. There was a time, not that long ago, when the genre was very much part of the popular vernacular. Think of the organ grinder and his monkey. Havilland’s tour was a smashing success. By early November he was back in Brooklyn at his parents house on Grand Avenue. Still he continued on with his war work. On behalf of the Red Cross he taught piano to advanced and beginning students alike to raise funds and awareness for the Allied war effort.

(image/Musical America)


Opening the crate

My colleagues and I had too much fun unpacking this crate today. The container weighs over 400 pounds and contains an exhibit on loan to us from the Embassy of Belgium in Washington D.C. There are thirty panels, which will be on display in installments throughout September and October in the library where I work. I will have more details in the coming days about how one can see the exhibit. We are putting up the first of it tomorrow morning. Today we opened the box, sorted the tubes you see here, pulled out the first six panels for installation tomorrow, and put two of them together just to make sure we understood how to do it. The panels are beautiful and are a real contribution to the commemoration of the Great War Centennial. Details to come.