The Archivist’s Nook: Heroes for More than One Day

Logo, Catholic Heroes of the World War Collection, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

In his 1977 hit single ‘Heroes,’ David Bowie sang “We can be heroes, just for one day…We can be heroes, forever and ever.” He may just as well have been referring to the ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘, whose valor was chronicled in the American Catholic press, 1929-1933. This now obscure paean to Catholic veterans and war workers, decorated by their then grateful country, was rediscovered in 2015 by Catholic University archivists working to identify and digitize materials documenting American Catholic efforts for the 2017 centenary of the United States entry into the so-called War to End All Wars. Perhaps via digitization these “heroes, just for one day” can begin again to be recognized as “heroes, forever and ever.”

As a minority, American Catholic population percentages increased mostly through immigration, from one percent during the American Revolution, to seventeen percent in World War I, and twenty-two percent in the twenty-first century. Supporting America’s World War I effort was a watershed for Catholics, long viewed as having questionable patriotism. They responded under the motto “For God and Country” to create the National Catholic War Council (NCWC), forerunner of today’s United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), representing Catholic interests in Congress and addressing the needs of soldiers and war workers. After the war, Catholics were confronted with the Oregon School Bill, supported by the Ku Klux Klan, declaring school age children could only attend public schools. The NCWC mobilized public opposition and the U.S. Supreme Court rejected the Oregon School Bill in 1925.

Colonel William J. ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan (1883-1959). Decorated World War I veteran, he was the only one to win all four of the United States’ highest awards: Medal of Honor, Distinguished Service Cross, Distinguished Medal, and National Security Medal. He was also head of the World War II era Office of Strategic Services (OSS), precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Image from Homeofheroes.com.

The 1928 American presidential election witnessed the first Catholic to head a major party ticket with Al Smith of New York as the Democratic Party nominee. He lost to Republican Herbert Hoover and it would not be until 1960 with John Fitzgerald Kennedy, that another Catholic would run, and this time win the presidency. Smith and Catholics were subjected to such vitriolic abuse that for Daniel J. Ryan, who headed the NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, it appeared work over the past decade to document American Catholic patriotism via war activities had been for naught. Never faint hearted and with records of over 800,000 Catholic veterans available, Ryan began in December 1928 to write a weekly column on outstanding ‘Catholic Heroes of the World War‘ for the Catholic press.

Ryan chose to profile men, and some women, who had won the Congressional Medal of Honor (CMH), the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC), and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM). Included were Colonel William ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, later the famed spymaster of World War II; nurse Beatrice Mary MacDonald, the first woman to win a DSC and Purple Heart; Daniel Daly of both the Knights of Columbus and U. S. Marines; Michigan chaplain Patrick R. Dunigan; El Paso native Marcus Armijo; and Italian immigrant Michael Vigliotti. Ryan kept a record of the stories with clippings in a scrapbook organized alphabetically by surname. The scrapbook itself was unremarkable, hard cover with yellow onionskin paper. The cover was acidic and falling apart, and many of the pages torn or disintegrating. The clippings were digitized and photocopied onto acid free paper, with the originals and copies individually housed in acid free folders.  

The feature was well received by former servicemen, their families, and others, who noted the accuracy of the articles. It continued until 1933, ending perhaps not coincidentally, in the same year Franklin Delano Roosevelt, relatively friendly to Catholics, assumed the Office of the President, though it should be noted the NCWC decided to close the Bureau of Historical Records in 1934 citing lack of funds. Ryan had explained the series hoped to deal with Catholic heroes from every state and diocese, and by 1931 there were 141 stories covering the then 48 states and all but 7 Catholic dioceses. By the time the column ended in 1933 there were about 250 stories in all.¹ For more on American Catholics in World War I see the Catholic University online exhibit.

Beatrice Mary MacDonald (1881-1969). Canadian born, New York resident, U.S. Army nurse seriously injured, losing an eye while caring for wounded soldiers. First woman to win the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC) and the Purple Heart. Also awarded the British Military Medal and French Croix de Guerre. Image from Purpleheart.com.

On occasion a ‘Heroes’ column was also published in the NCWC Bulletin magazine, as with the June 1929 story of Slovak immigrant, Matej Kocak, who won two Medals of Honor before making the ultimate sacrifice for his new country. USCCB records, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

¹NCWC Bureau of Historical Records, Annual Reports, 1929-1933.

The Archivist’s Nook: Connecticut Catholic in Washington, 1917

O’Connell Family, ca. 1911.Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

One hundred years ago, American entry into the First World War transformed the nation’s capital from a sleepy Southern crossroads into a modern hub of administration commensurate to an emerging first class world power. It was here a young Catholic soldier wrote his family, primarily his mother and sisters, back in their hometown of Southington, Connecticut. That man, Robert Lincoln O’Connell, whose archival papers, including a digital collection, reside in the archives at The Catholic University of America (CUA) and briefly alluded to in two previous blog posts, ‘For God and Country’ and ‘World War I on Display,’ contain seven letters he wrote from April to August 1917 addressed from Washington Barracks, now Fort McNair. ‘Rob,’ as he was known to his family, described his initial training in and around Washington, D.C. as a combat engineer, or sapper, for service in the First Engineer Regiment of the First Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.) in France.

O’Connell (1888-1972), a native of Wareham, Massachusetts, was the eldest of five children of Daniel and Mary O’Connell, immigrants from Ireland and Wales, respectively. By 1900, the O’Connell family had moved to the town of Southington, Connecticut, near Hartford and less than 100 miles from New York City. The family attended St. Thomas Roman Catholic Church and the 1910 federal census lists father Daniel as a “laborer” in an “iron mill” and son Robert as “laborer” in a “hardware shop.” Rob O’Connell enlisted in the U.S. Army at Fort Slocum, New York, on April 14, 1917, and shortly thereafter transferred to Washington Barracks where he spent the next three months training as a machinist in Company C, First Battalion, of the First Engineers. His unit also spent time along the Potomac River on the grounds of the Belvoir Estate that had served since 1912 as a rifle range and summer camp for the training of Army engineers.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recruiting poster, 1917.

In O’Connell’s April 28, 1917 letter, he told his mother details of settling in after his recent enlistment and commented on the visit of Marshal Joseph Joffre, famous hero of the Battle of the Marne, who spoke at the Army War College, adjacent to Washington Barracks, the day before. “All clothes had to be sent to the disinfecting plant to prevent spreading disease among so many men…. Gen. Joffre and his party visited the post yesterday. I seem to be hungry all the time, in spite of three sq. meals.”  Writing in mid-May, he complained to his mother about the Washington newspapers, presumably the Washington Post and Washington Star, although he appeared impressed by D.C.‘s sites and scenes. “This city has trees along the main streets. I never saw a place like it. I have not seen Mr. Lud, the President, yet. But I have seen the principle buildings and the Wash. Monument, which you can’t help seeing, it is so tall.” 

Apparently, ‘Mr. Lud’ was a nickname for President Woodrow Wilson, perhaps an obscure reference to the legendary British king and founder of London. Writing his mother again on May 31, he explained the training of engineers at Washington Barracks. “They had racing and other sports between the companies…We lost the tent-pitching by a few points…The sergeant was sore at losing and yelled at us as we marched off the field.”

Washington Barracks, 1917. U.S. Army Military History Institute.

In June, he told his mother “There was a black and white scrap up the street, last night.” An African-American woman had an argument with a soldier and “she hit him with a beer bottle.” This was probably not an isolated incident as the August 10 Washington Post said the Secretary of War directed “a number of saloons in Four-and-a half street southwest may be closed because of their proximity to the Washington barracks.” Another letter home, also written in June, addressed to his sister Ellen, described field training on the grounds of the future Fort Belvoir. “I have just put in the hardest two weeks of my life, I guess, down at the rifle range. It is about twenty miles below Washington, on the Potomac… passengers on the passing steamers probably wish they were camping out there. But when we (A, B and C companies), got there two weeks ago last Monday, there were no tents and lots of brush and weeds and hard work…For two days we worked around camp and lugged and tugged and sweated and wondered why we had ever wanted to leave our happy home at the Barracks.” Combat engineers learned to construct field works and pontoon bridges. They also had to fight as regular infantry when the need arose, hence training in the use of firearms. “Half the company shot in the forenoon while the other half worked in the pits, pushing the targets up into view and pointing out each hit with a long stick… I fired in the morning and managed to get in with the higher ones on the score.”

Robert Lincoln O’Connell to his mother, Mary O’Connell, July 3, 1917. Robert Lincoln O’Connell Papers, American Catholic History Research Center and University Archives.

O’Connell wrote his mother on July 3 expressing confidence in himself as well as contempt for those who had not met the standard. “The captain told us last week that eight or ten men would be left behind because they were too stupid or weren’t considered fit to go with the regiment to France. I won’t be in that bunch if I can help it, as there is some honor in going over but only a disgrace in being a castoff. When the news first got out a month ago, that we were going to France, some of the fire-eaters were delighted, until the officers explained what they would have to do…It was no news to me and if I go, I will do the best I can. This life is a wonderful bracer and I am glad I joined.” The last letter, addressed to his mother in early August, was written a few days departure for France. “Would you care to make the trip down and risk finding us gone?” There is no record his family made the trip to see him. The First Engineers left Washington on August 6 and embarked for France from Hoboken, New Jersey, the following day. O’Connell and his fellow engineers were now at war and a future blog post will explore their time at the front in 1918.