Band of Brothers

The following article was prepared for the INDEPENDENCE DAY JOURNAL which was distributed by the Family Day Committee at Family Day, July 6, 2003.


Dr. Paul Loatman, Jr.
City Historian

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he today that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother.

Shakespeare, Henry V, Act IV

             Six years ago on a cold, gray morning as my wife and I drove across the back roads of Washington County on our way to hike a mountain in Vermont, we slowed down as we came into the Village of Cambridge. With the radio on and the windows rolled up, we were shielded from the noise of the outside world until stopping for a traffic light. But then, ever so faintly, something I could hear in the background caught my attention, leading me to lower my window. Bells – church bells – all tolling in a steady, somber tone! Immediately, I recognized that it was now “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.” It was Veteran’s Day. Suddenly, a rush of memory transported me to another time and place.

            That memory was neither of something I had experienced, nor was it of someone I had known personally. Rather, this memory was of my grandmother, my mother‘s mother, someone I had never met. She had died before I was born, passing away on Easter Monday, 1938. Though she had survived a mustard gas attack while serving as a Red Cross nurse in France during World War I, she was in a weakened state of health for the rest of her life. What little I know of her I learned during long conversations I had with my own mother while she struggled unsuccessfully with cancer twenty years ago. Beyond those conversations, I also had a handful of letters written to and by my grandmother while she was serving “Over There.”

            On that gray November morning driving through Cambridge, a part of me – whether DNA, blood, or instinct, I know not which – yearned to connect with that someone whom I had never seen in the flesh. What did come to mind, though, was my own recollection of reading a letter she had received from a doctor friend who served in the front lines in France, a letter written to her by Will J. Jones on September 8, 1918. I have read that letter many times over, having used it as a teaching tool through the years. Its initial use in this regard led to the accidental discovery that my students felt that in two brief pages, it captured the full range of emotions and experiences of modern warfare as well as most war novels and movies they have read or viewed.

            As the World War was coming to a climax in 1918, Dr. Jones wrote to “My Dear Friend” that his medical dugout had recently taken some direct hits, but “there was no one in it so we were lucky….” He went on to vent his frustration about being unable to   send or receive mail for long periods of time, and he especially wished to hear from his brother, then serving in northern France: “I am very anxious …. It is nearly three years since I saw him last. Please write and tell me the news,” he pled. Though their own circumstances would be different, many Mechanicville young men who went off to England, France, Africa, or the South Pacific in 1942 (hoping to complete their military obligations in two years) were to discover later that they had in fact enlisted “for the duration of the war.” They, too, would experience the absence of loved ones for three, and in some cases, four years. And, when they returned home, they would discover, just as my grandmother had a generation earlier, that the few letters they were able to send through the military lines had been “censored” so that information regarding their whereabouts was blacked out, lest the letters be intercepted by the enemy. More recently, Korean and Vietnam War veterans may have had more success in getting their mail sent home, but fighting in obscure Southeast Asian jungles or atop nameless, numbered hills on the Korean peninsula required their correspondents to become geographers if they wanted to be able to discern where their loved ones were located.

            As dreary, monotonous, chilling, and dangerous as war can be, it also holds a fascination that can be deceptively attractive to young men. Indeed, a younger generation that had become jaded by thirty years of peace after the Civil War so envied the storied-pasts of their fathers that they organized a new organization, “The Sons of Veterans,” in Mechanicville and throughout the North in the1890s, holding encampments and re-enactments of battles they had been no part of at all. But, they need not have worried too much, for their generation would confirm the validity of an 18th century British leader’s observation that the next war becomes inevitable when enough people forget the last one. Before long, these “Sons of Veterans” would have their own “splendid little war” in Cuba and the Philippines in 1898. Maybe then, they finally came to see the wisdom of what a famous leader, William Tecumseh Sherman, had warned their fathers’ generation: “there is many a boy here today who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”

            Writing from his dug-out while accompanying Battery D, 42nd Artillery on that September, 1918 day, Will Jones displayed that same combination of revulsion and fascination with war that the Sons of Veterans had manifested some twenty years earlier. He wrote my grandmother: “You say there must be something fascinating about being up here. I should say there is. I love it … The whistle of the shells and the hum of the airplanes is constant.” Yet, speaking for generations of combat veterans who came before and after him, he went on to state: “When we go back [home] I think we will be glad to forget a whole lot of it.” And then, war being war, only a few short sentences later Captain Jones related that he had to interrupt his letter because of “some peculiar noises outside which indicate that I will have to go soon and find my little hole in the ground.” Fortunately, he survived the shelling, and completed his letter, but not before those “peculiar noises” led him to the sobering conclusion that “it is fierce to be half mole and spend so much time under the earth. I’ll be there long enough when my time comes.”

            Glimpses at letters such as these are rare indeed, but a few others that were published in The Mechanicville Saturday Mercury during the Spanish American War in 1898 have come to light. Fighting in Cuba at that time, young Eddie Hewson felt such a strong urge to communicate with his mother at home here that he overcame his lack of stationery by writing his thoughts on the backs of labels of soup cans that were part of his rations. Another local comrade-in-arms, Hubert Townsend, scratched out three letters he wrote on the back of order pads of the Jurangua Iron Co. near Santiago, a task made all the more challenging by the necessity of using his gun stock as his writing desk. As is true in all wars, these men who found themselves in harm’s way went to great lengths to reassure the folks back home that they were just fine. Yet, sometimes they revealed more than they should have about their situations, at least as far as their parents needed to know. Probably more out of naivete than frankness, young Hewson may have revealed more alarm than he intended by reporting that his fellow combatant on his left at the Battle of Santiago had been shot through the left lung, and two sentences later adding the note that his buddy to the right had just been wounded in both legs. But, after disclosing the chilling news that the Americans had suffered 1,580 casualties in the battle, he ended his letter serenely enough by signing off: “I will close now, sending love to all, hoping to hear from you soon.”

            Our other local correspondent, Hubert Townsend, succeeded in getting his mail sent  home in short order by posting it with a newspaperman accompanying our troops in Cuba. While reporting that he had fought in “two hard battles,” Hubert went on to reassure his parents with the happy news that “I am alive and uninjured.” However, in this, the first of three letters he would forward from the battlefield within a week, he expressed regrets that he had “not seen Leon or any of the Mechanicville boys” [men we are unable to identify today], while going on to complain that “It is very hot here. Rains every day.” Three days later, July 2, a second letter gave the impression that not much seemed to have happened in the interim, yet it contained hints to the contrary in its assurance to his mother that “I am alive and uninjured, thank God.” Why he had brought the Almighty into it became obvious a few days later when Hubert took a more forthright approach in his third letter by revealing that, in fact, he had been wounded in the ankle on July 1. However, since he was not fully disabled, he explained, he continued fighting until he was shot in the left arm two days later. Did he suppose he did not have to tell his parents of his true condition until he was wounded not once, but twice? Yet, lest such  news upset them, he reassuringly concluded that “I am still alive and hope to be on American soil when this reaches you.” As it happened, that last hope was realized when young Townsend was shipped to a military hospital in Atlanta where he recovered from his wounds.

Reading letters such as these, knowing that hundreds of similar messages must have been sent to parents and other loved ones in later wars, reminds us that the Will Joneses, Eddie Hewsons, Hubert Townsends and thousands of other Mechanicville veterans who went into battle lacked our advantage of having enjoyed the hindsight of history. On a daily, on an hourly, and even on a minute-by-minute basis, all of these veterans knew what it was like to live the most tenuous, provisional existence. Hunkered down in foxholes, or aboard ships on /or beneath the high seas, they never had the comfort of knowing that “it will turn out alright” in the end. And, as we know, for some of them, the ending did not turn out so well after all.  

            Today, Family Day, an occasion when we enjoy the company of friends and relatives while mingling with neighbors and visitors whom we may see once a year, is a day marked by joy and festivity. But during our celebration, let us take time to reflect and ponder the words of one Vietnam War veteran who has observed: “Those who do not do battle for their country do not know with what ease they accept their citizenship in America.” Since that day two hundred and twenty-eight years ago when “the shot heard round the world” was fired at Lexington and Concord, thousands of Mechanicville men and women have served in the armed forces of our country. Most of them, thankfully, have watched “o’er the ramparts” in peacetime, but many others were called upon to drink the bitter dregs of battle.

            It might well be true that apart from Colonel Elmer E. Ellsworth, few if any of our local citizenry have earned significant rank or fame on the battlefield. However, in one sense, this may honor our veterans even more by highlighting the fact that they have been the backbone of an institution that is the pride of the American democratic tradition: our citizen-army. No less a military hero than General William Tecumseh Sherman recognized this fact when he observed: “We have good corporals and good sergeants … and those are far more important than good generals.” Mechanicville has contributed more than its fair share of corporals and sergeants to our armed forces. A modern-day leader, General J. Lawton Collins, who acknowledges the importance of these men in the ranks, easily could have had our hometown “GI Joes” in mind when he remarked: “The most precious commodity with which the Army deals is the individual soldier who is the heart and soul of our combat forces.”

            Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “War is a crime. Ask the infantry and ask the dead." The task this writer suggests is near impossible to accomplish, of course; dead men tell no tales and those who witnessed their own private glimpses of hell are quite reticent about those experiences. It is unlikely that any letters they may have written in the same vein as Will Jones, Eddie Hewson, or Hubert Townsend will come to light any time soon. (Remember, none of these three correspondents ever intended that his letter would see the light of day beyond its intended audience.) We should respect the silence of those who have survived the gravest dangers, recognizing that almost to a man they will tell you that the bravest among them were left behind on the battlefield. Yet, we should also recognize that physical bravery, admirable as it is, has been described by some scientists as an animal instinct. Men and women who stared danger in the face and returned home to tell about it often say they were just doing a job. But, on this day when we honor all of those who have served our country, we need to also reflect on the words spoken by the ancient Greek warrior, Orestes, when he said, “Often the test of courage is not to die but to live.”

            Figuratively, if not literally, all of our residents who have served or are serving our country have earned the right to don the medal found on the body of another Mechanicville serviceman, Elmer E. Ellsworth, after he had been killed in 1861: “ Non sol Nobis, Sed pro Patria- Not for ourselves, but for our country.” The names of all the Mechanicville soldiers who gave their lives while serving our country have been engraved on a special monument at the Saratoga National Veteran’s Cemetery. They are listed here below. Today of all days, we should take a moment and read their names in recognition of the fact that they paid the ultimate price so that we might enjoy our liberties and freedom. Read those names slowly, and as you recite them one by one by one in your mind, may you come to appreciate the fact that what Lt. General Harold Moore said of those men he lost in Vietnam applies equally as well to all of these Mechanicville boys: “It is easy to forget the numbers, but how can we forget the faces, the voices, the cries of young men dying before their time?”


Bacon, Raymond L.        WWII
Beck, Fred H.                  WWII
Beninati, Anthony           WWII
Biette, William                WWII
Boucher, Ralph                WWII
Burke, William J.             WWI
Carp, Joseph F.                WWII
Casey, Francis                  WWI
Cervoni, Gaetano             WWI
Connelly, Edward S.        WWI
Costanzo, Giovanni          WWI
Ebaldo, Fred                     WWI
Ellsworth Elmer E.           Civil War
Fairman, Walter A.          WWI
Farrell, William F.            WWII
Fort, Charles                     WWII
Garmley, Ellis W.             WWII
Gickowski, Edward           WWII
Gilheany, Joseph, Jr.         WWII
Gould, Edmund F.             WWII
Goverski, Frank                 WWII
Green, Joseph F.                WWII
Griffin, William                 WWII
Hariman, Walter                WWI
Harkrider, George W.        WWI
Hoffman, Harry S.             WWII
Hogan, Joseph L.               WWI
Hutchins, Frank J.              Vietnam
Izzo, Frank                          WWII
Johnson, Howard                WWII
Just, Matthew                      WWII
Keniry, Charles L.               WWII
Kolobus, Benjamin W.        WWII
Lawyer, William                  WWII
Lefco, Henry                        WWII
Little, Norman                      WWII
Mac Kinlay, Bruce S.           WWII
Maloney, James R.                WWII
Marcella, Henry A.                WWII
McAllister, Richard               WWII
McEvoy, James T.                 WWII
Micklas, Anthony                  WWII
Mignano, Mario                     WWII
Miller,Gregory                      WWI
Moore,Pierce                         WWII
Mulliken, Charles                  Civil War
Noble, Alden R.                     WWII
O’Dell, William L.                WWII
Offenbecker. Albert E.          WWII
Ostrander, James M.              WWII
Parker, John J.                        WWII
Patenaude, Donald                 WWII
Patenaude, Harold M.            Vietnam
Peters, Anthony                      WWI
Pipino, Silvio                         WWII
Purcell, Patrick                       WWII
Purtle, James                          WWI
Reilly, John T.                        WWII
Reily, Francis W.                    WWII
Robinson, Frank J.                  WWII
Sairman, William                    WWI
Satterly, George                      WWII
Sceel, Russell                          WWII
Scheel, William J.                   WWII
Scott, William J.                      WWII
Sorrel, Milton                          WWII
Strunesky, Stanley S.               WWII
Sweet, Russell H.                     WWII
Tabor, Ralph                            WWI
Thompson, John T.                  WWII
Toombs, Charles                      WWI
Urbanski, Seraphin                   WWII
Whitman, Ralph F.                    WWI
Yankowski, John A.                  WWII