When I began the series on the men whose names were engraved on the American Legion Honor Roll plaque in front of the Lydia B. Cannon Museum, I was not intending to complete work on it in time for this year’s Memorial Day commemorations. It was to be a long-term project, perhaps over a period of months. Once I started delving into the stories, I felt compelled to sideline other research and finish the project. While I didnt quite make the self-imposed Memorial Day deadline, I did publish my final biographical post of the series today, just minutes before I started writing this epilogue.
Researching and writing the series has affected me unlike most of the other subject matter I have tackled. Take the matter of age, for example. There was scant information available on most of the men, especially about their lives prior to wartime service; but even where the details were few, age at time of death was always there. The majority of the men were in their very early twenties, and a few just nineteen years old. William Short Marvel and Franklin Gilbert look like high school seniors on a yearbook page; Charles Madjarosy looks like he’s about to say “aw shucks” at his rumpled appearance. I could scarcely imagine them facing down the grim veteran troops of the Wermacht, and I don’t know how I would have felt being the father of any of them, watching them leave for boot camp.
Then there is the matter of rank. The highest rank among the military men was that of corporal, and that belonged to John E. Johnson of Ellendale, along with Reuben Donovan the oldest among the fallen at 29. The rest were buck privates or private first class, or the naval equivalent. The two members of the Merchant Marine were ordinary seamen.
Is there any inference we can draw from the youth and low rank relating to their deaths? Emotionally, I want to believe they were not skilled or prepared enough for the ordeals they would face. But in every war in history that relied on massed formations of infantry or ships to overpower the enemy, the least experienced – not the officers or sergeants – would be the ones to take the most casualties in their initial engagements, until they learned enough to survive and eventually prevail.
It is the stories of what happened to the families of some of these fallen soldiers that moved me most profoundly, however: the Madjarosy family’s despair at the loss of Charles, leading to the father’s suicide twenty-two years later and his sister’s enduring pain; the implied suicide of a young war widow in her father-in-law’s garage years after the end of the war; two more widows left with several fatherless children; and the case of Franklin Edginton, whose body lies somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific, unrecoverable. Nobody can comprehend what this level of grief entails unless they have gone through it too.
War fighting has evolved, and the armed forces have evolved with it. Our military personnel, made up of volunteer professionals, long-ago desegregated, and more recently including women in combat roles, are fewer in number but more highly trained and lethally armed. And yet, when facing militia and irregular fighters, we have seen that a motivated enemy can devise low-tech measures to counter nearly everything our soldiers throw at them. The youngest and least experienced among our highly trained soldiers are still going to run the greatest risk of being picked off by a sniper, or drive a humvee by a roadside IED, or trust the wrong ally.
Because of the sheer number of personnel inducted during WWII, across the entire social spectrum, loss and grieving were a much more widely shared experience in America. This is not the case today with an all-volunteer force that does not draw from the entire pool of eligible citizens. I don’t pretend to have anything meaningful to say about the present conditions under which we maintain and deploy our armed forces – except for one thing: We must feel more about what our soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines do than what is expressed in a perfunctory “Thank you for your service.” The families who lose a member to war (or its aftermath) are heavily traumatized, as are veterans who have endured painful wounds or the loss of their fellows. We need to remind ourselves what that meant in our prior wars, and what it still means today. Memorial Day is a solemn occasion, not a three-day weekend or a shopping binge.
There were fourteen names on the American Legion Honor Roll plaque; I found sufficient information to write about ten of them. For the remaining four individuals, I need assistance from readers of this blog.
I could not find anything in public records to connect James Reed, William C. Newcomb, and John O. Davidson to the town of Milton, a Milton family, or any branch of the military. For this I need your help.
There is one more name on the plaque that may have been misspelled as Camfield, for which no record exists. Pvt. Jacob Henry Cranfield (1882 – 07/10/1918) embarked from Hoboken, NJ with Company C, 116th Engineers, 41st Division on February 17, 1918, bound for France and the American Expeditionary Force gathering strength there. He died of an unspecified disease (possibly the Spanish flu) while serving in France. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery in May of 1921 after repatriation of his remains from the American cemetery in Haute-Marne. He may have lived for a brief period in Milton, hence his inclusion on the plaque, but I have not been able to find any other information on him. I anyone has something that could shed light on his origins, I would welcome it.
Lastly, I have no way to verify that the names on the Honor Roll plaque are the only Milton men who lost their lives fighting for their country prior to the Korean War. There may be more, and I would like to know who they are so they too can be remembered.