Soldiers of War and PeaceNov 01, 2020 10:00AM ● By Karey Solomon
If you’ve seen the Wall of Honor at the corner of Routes 6 and 15 in Mansfield, you might wonder about its long list of names—204 men and one woman. All veterans of the first World War, none of them by now still walking the earth. Does anyone know anymore who they were? Does anyone care? Does it matter? Yes to all three.
The wall was first painted in 1924. It’s been refurbished at least twice since then. And several Mansfield residents have made it their mission to make sure those veterans will not be forgotten.
In 1918, as World War I ended, an influenza pandemic was gathering speed. It contributed to the stranding of many American soldiers in Europe as they waited for their ride back to the United States. When the war-weary veterans returned home, they brought to the U.S. Congress an idea they’d been incubating in France. These patriotic Americans saw that their time of service didn’t finish with the end of the war. They wanted to share the maturity they’d gained. They felt a kinship with those who stood shoulder-to-shoulder with them at war. Some of their compatriots had permanent injuries and needed help.
Thus the American Legion was established in September of 1919. Regional veterans lost no time in organizing, and American Legion Post #478 in Mansfield received its charter before the end of the year. It was named the Austin-Cox post in honor of two fallen native sons—Private Gerald Austin, who was killed in action in June of 1918, and Sergeant John Cox, who died from complications of influenza shortly after his return home. It was important for area veterans to be able to spend time with others who understood their experiences, their traumas, and the challenge of re-entering their lives. It was also essential to remember those who’d gone to war, whether they’d returned or fallen in battle.
Founding member Harold Strait, the proprietor of Strait’s Hardware at the junction of Routes 6 and 15 (now Night and Day Café), served in Russia during the war. Lifelong Mansfield resident Bruce Dart describes him as a “low-profile, Mr. Rogers kind of guy.” In the time he held the dual offices of post commander and district commander in 1924, Harold Strait decided the village needed a “Wall of Honor” as a visible commemoration of native sons who’d served in the war. Having a good-sized wall at his disposal—the long side of his own brick store facing Route 6—he arranged to have painted on it the names of 204 soldiers who left the area to go to war, and paid to maintain the wall through his lifetime.
Many of those who joined up to head overseas were still in their teens. Back in 1920, according to the U.S. census, 85 percent of males over the age of fourteen were part of the labor force. While still very young by today’s standards, they considered themselves men. That’s not so much the case today, but some things don’t change. Then, as now, the stepping-stones on the path to success for most young men included hard work and education. Some were fortunate enough to be able to anticipate the inheritance of land or a farm, a family business, or familial wealth. No matter.
Despite already working on plans for their own futures, a generation of young (sometimes really young) men interrupted those plans to answer the national call to arms. Still, at this distance, it’s easy to look at the long list of names on the wall and see just that—a long list of names rather than the people they were.
But Bruce, himself a veteran, a long-time member of the American Legion, and commander of Harold Strait’s Post #478 (since his father, Doug Dart, with whom he served as vice-commander for fourteen years, died in early 2014), sees more there.
“Years ago, Mansfield University brought in Alex Haley, author of Roots, as a speaker for Black Awareness Week,” Bruce recalls. “One of the things he talked about was his research for his heritage. He said everyone needed to do this so they knew where they came from.” Partly sparked by the author’s thoughts on history, Bruce, in turn, found his own thoughts turning to those represented on that Wall of Honor.
After the Homecoming
“They [the names on the wall] were very modest about their accomplishments,” Bruce muses.
“How many times do we come face to face before we realize their legacy is significant to the area and we really need to tell their stories?” Some were people he’d known for many years—friends and neighbors, people who had lived their lives in long-term service to the community or a cause. For instance, Myron Webster, a political science professor at what was then known as Mansfield State College, was “an amazing guy,” Bruce says. A professional photographer himself, he remembers Myron Webster in his retirement as someone who photographed and catalogued all the local bird species. Webster was also a graduate of Cornell University Law School. There were others, less well-remembered today. What had become of those young men after they came home?
Bruce enlisted others to help him find out. Local historian Joyce Tice, founder and executive director of the History Center on Main Street, in Mansfield, did most of the research, Bruce says. He added information when he had it, and turned the facts into a narrative. The project began with the ninetieth anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, and was completed for the American Legion’s centennial in 2019. It was made harder because many of the returning soldiers were originally not allowed to talk about their war experiences, and kept that habit of silence.
Still, much was learned, and the results became a small book, Legacy and Vision: The American Legion Centennial Celebration, published in 2019.
Some of the stories they discovered are entertaining now, though certainly hair-raising then. Another charter member of the Legion, John Nye Hatfield, of Rutland Township, saw only about a week of service, but earned the Croix de Guerre (the French medal of honor awarded for distinguished service in battle) on November 9, two days before the armistice. Hatfield was one of fifteen soldiers walking through a quiet area to scout out a resting place for the night. They were ambushed by a nest of enemy soldiers with machine guns, who killed or wounded all but Hatfield and one other man. Hatfield ran forward, still firing. At the end, two enemy gunners had been killed and five more surrendered to Hatfield. He discovered later he had run out of ammunition and captured the five with bravado and an empty gun.
Glenn Smith, also from Rutland, was an aviator who fell out of his open-cockpit plane without a parachute and lived, plummeting about a thousand feet into the water. Ernest “Shorty” McConnell of Mansfield had a very brief army career as a sharp-shooter and motorcycle orderly. He began training in early October and went overseas a few weeks later. He soon broke his ankle colliding with a shell-hole and was invalided out, returning to his old job as a barber in little more than three months.
But, “This is not about World War I, it’s about the contributions people made to the community after they came back from the war,” Joyce Tice says. “Some of them saw service overseas, many did not. Some returned to college. Not all of them stayed in the area.
“There was a Student Army Training Corps [the precursor of the ROTC, or Reserve Officer Training Corps] at what was then the Mansfield Normal School [now Mansfield University]. That was a two-year teacher training school, like a trade school for teachers.” Many of the soldiers from Mansfield were students there, she says.
There were those whose education was paused while they went to war, and who returned to Mansfield to complete their studies. Some, like Fred Jupenlaz, became educators and later professors at the college. Warren Miller became a beloved teacher, coach, principal, and later Mansfield’s Superintendent of Schools; the elementary school was named for him. He also attended the same church as the Dart family.
Some held ordinary jobs, a few achieved a bit of fame in the bigger scheme of things. Leigh Allen of Mansfield, who graduated from Princeton University before going off to war, went to Hollywood when he returned, acting in a film with Myrna Loy. After a short stint on Broadway, he took up his life’s work as an architect. Fred “Joe” Bedenk played football, baseball, and competed in track and field events while at Mansfield. He was a professor of physical education and athletics at the university of Florida and later at Penn State.
Many became leading lights in local businesses. Quite a few became physicians.
The only woman whose name appears on the wall is Sylvene Nye, daughter of Roseville physician Orrin Nye. She studied nursing and served as a battlefield nurse, earning the Croix de Guerre for her bravery. She died in 1924 from the accumulated illness and overwork suffered during the war.
But apart from careers and family life, many made other lasting contributions to the area. Reading Bruce’s book, it’s hard not to be struck by the myriad ways these veterans worked in their communities beyond their day jobs. Many volunteered for a variety of civic organizations, mentoring young people, providing community services as firefighters or ambulance drivers, and adding to the cultural life of their community.
Jupenlaz was chairman of the Board of Trustees at Mansfield State and director of the Tioga County Chapter of the American Red Cross. Roy Nash of Sullivan Township was active in the Troy Fair. Harold Strait was president of the Appalachian Thruway Commission for more than two decades, and instrumental in the completion of Route 15. Herbert Peterson, a founding member of the Mansfield American Legion and its first commander, served on several hospital boards and the Armory board.
Many others belonged to fraternal benevolent associations and were active in their churches. Manderville Bartle of Mansfield conducted both a band and an orchestra.
“They came back and wanted to be productive citizens,” Bruce says. “Often, they didn’t want a lot of fanfare. They wanted to live their lives and make a contribution to the country for which they had wanted to preserve their freedom.
“People have a certain mindset and attitude from being in the military, a sense of patriotism that never leaves you. What was drummed into our heads being in the Navy, you never forget those things. It’s about making your time count.”
Several of those whose names are on the wall re-enlisted to serve in World War II; some had previously seen combat in the Spanish American War.
“Those who confronted a wartime reality came face to face with the impermanence of life,” Bruce continues. “Some felt guilt that they were spared while other people were killed—now they call it PTSD—any veteran could tell you about it. Generally we don’t talk about those things but they’re always there. They never leave us.”
Not all the names listed on the wall are accompanied by a biography. Some families moved away and couldn’t be found, others, when contacted, did not respond to queries for information. Bruce suspects many of those who came back were requested to not discuss their wartime experiences for reasons of national security, and maintained that discretion for their entire lives. “They served and did what they had to do,” he says.
Making People Real
The Wall of Honor is something of a community treasure. When Bruce spearheaded an effort to refurbish the memorial a dozen years ago, he is proud to say, “we had no problem raising the money. People around this area have been extremely good to veterans.”
Many return time and again to the memorial, pointing out a father, a grandfather, an uncle to family members who might not have met their ancestor.
“The goal [of the book] was to make people real,” Bruce says. “I felt they deserved it. I knew some of them as my neighbors. The thing is, they made significant impacts on life in this area. The more I looked into these things, the more there were these details that kept coming forward.”
And now, when someone notices a place or activity named after a man they can’t personally remember, Bruce’s book might fill that gap. Knowing who they were, looking at the hopeful and serious young faces in the old-fashioned photographs illustrating the book, tells us all a little more about how we got to where—and who—we are today.
There are more than eighty names about whom little is currently known. For some there’s a photo, for others a line or two that gives their dates of service and a succinct summation of their post-war occupation. These are gaps Bruce is still hoping to fill in. He says he’d be happy for any additional information anyone is able to provide. He can be contacted at Dart Photography in Mansfield, at photosbydart.com, or at (570) 662-3919. Copies of Legacy and Vision: The American Legion Centennial Celebration are available at the Mansfield and Wellsboro Chambers of Commerce as well as at From My Shelf Books and Gifts in Wellsboro.