By Nicole O’Connell
100 years ago, the War to End All Wars was at its height. But as years go by and contemporaries of the First World War decrease, it becomes more difficult to keep hold of the past. The people from that time are becoming increasingly forgotten and the Worcester Memorial Auditorium, its walls listing those who gave their lives in service, is vacant and deteriorating. Worcester’s own history of its participation in the war seems to be in the process of being lost.
However, it is now a little less lost thanks to the efforts of Linda Hixon.
Professor Linda Hixon is an adjunct professor in the History department of WSU. In 2016, her research class published For the Unity of the Republic, a book on the men from Worcester who were lost during the Civil War. Last spring, her class helped to research the 355 men and women who are listed on the wall of the Worcester Memorial Auditorium. A book of their findings, They Ventured Far, was recently published. I met with Professor Hixon and asked her about the process of this project.
Can you describe the project?
It was based off the Civil War project. We decided to do it in 2017 for the hundredth anniversary of the United States’ involvement in World War I because we became involved on April 6, 1917. I didn’t want to wait, because if we waited until the year we stopped, which is next year, it seemed like that would be kind of a crunch. This gives us time to give the book away, because there’s a lot of memorials coming up for this.
Originally, we had twenty students in our class, plus a tenth grade honors class from the Bancroft School. Plus, we had between thirty and forty volunteers from the community who helped with this project. It was basically taking the 355 names inside Memorial Auditorium and trying to write a biography of them, which can be a job in and of itself. There’s a man on that wall named Richard Castham that we couldn’t find anywhere; he was one of the names that one of the Bancroft students took, and they got so frustrated we had to give them a different name and Zach [an editor of the book] and I kind of threw something together at the very end. We think he was an English immigrant; it was just a nightmare finding him. This is the problem when you’re dealing with just a list of names. And that’s kind of how it came about, so now it’s a book.
Other than issues of research, were there any other big difficulties you ran into?
The biggest difficulty was people actually finishing what they started. We did actually have three students who did not finish. That was hard. We had volunteers that didn’t finish; we also had volunteers that went above and beyond. I was literally getting biographies at the end of October and the finish date was supposed to be mid-June. We were pulling this book together three weeks ago, two weeks ago. It was that tight. We were supposed to have it to the publisher on October 30, and I think my son sent it out that night. He did the page layout. And we drove up to Westfield on the 31st to see a proof because we wanted to get copies for Veteran’s Day. We gave them away on Saturday at the Whispering Wall. We had people actually show up to that just to get copies of the book.
Yeah that was the big one, getting people to actually give me the stuff that we needed. It was so much bigger than the Civil War project because there were only about 15 of us involved in the Civil War project, and in the end Zach and I were writing all of the soldiers that didn’t get adopted, and there were about 150. With this project, with 70 people involved I still had 60 soldiers that didn’t get adopted and I was writing like crazy at the end, so it was very tiring.
What was your favorite part of doing the project?
My favorite part was hearing from the students, later, how much they’d gotten out of the project. Let me start with the Worcester State students. I heard from students who graduated in May of ’17 with a history degree who had never actually stepped inside an archive until we did this project. Now if you’re a history student, you should have been inside an archive before you graduate. So for me that was the icing on the cake of being so exhausted, remembering students saying how much they got out of it. It’s genealogy, it’s military research, it’s research about communities, it’s just research about the building itself. It involves so much.
And the other great thing was we got the Bancroft class into the Memorial Auditorium and their eyes just lit up. I had trouble getting the Worcester State students to come; a lot of them didn’t show up. The Bancroft school…they were just so blown away with the building. None of them had ever been into it. Seeing that was a lot of fun. I enjoyed that a lot.
What was the most surprising thing that you learned while researching the stories?
Our biggest surprise was Walton Danker. We were working on a totally different project in Hopedale, going through a box of stuff that was from a woman’s basement. In it was a program, ten years after the war was over, honoring Walton Danker out of a Milford church that we didn’t even know he’d been a minister at. And there was his picture on the cover of this program and our heads went boom because it was a completely different project; we weren’t even looking for World War I stuff and there we were with a picture of Walton Danker and new information. I think that was the best part of the project.
I wish we had more than a semester to do this because there is still information coming. After my son laid out the book, I got an updated biography from one of my volunteers who had just gotten information from a World War I museum about the trip that a mother had taken to France to visit her son’s grave. He had new information and we couldn’t put it in the book because the chapter had been laid out and it was done. My heart was breaking because it was information about [the soldier’s] bones being dug up and reinterred in the French cemetery.
Once people see this book and start remembering their relatives we’re going to get even more new information. We didn’t have time to go looking for the relatives and they have more of the story of their dead relative. That could have gone in the book. That’s the problem with these projects: you’re in a time crunch and sometimes you have students who don’t take that extra step to try to find relatives or they may not think of it. So you end up with that book already could have a second edition with more information. It was printed two weeks ago; it could have a new edition with more information. My heart breaks for that.
What do you think the general public will be most surprised about by reading this book?
I think they’ll be most surprised about how many immigrants were involved. It was somewhere between a third and almost a half were either immigrants or the sons of immigrants. For me, that was the biggest one.
Also the number of men who died of disease. It’s not something we think about now. That, to me, is the hardest part to stomach. It’s bad enough to lose men in no man’s land, or for some stupid accident, or even suicide. Suicides were hard too. But to lose men because their wound gets infected or they die of pneumonia. Gas, a lot of these guys died of gas, ones that died after the war. That’s something again we don’t talk about, don’t hear about. The suicides are the tough ones. Because I think they didn’t understand PTSD. And I think we still don’t give that enough credit. I think mental health for soldiers even today is lacking.
Are there any interesting stories you wish to share?
A lot of the men’s stories are really interesting. There were men in this book who were underage and served. There [were many] men who died in airplane crashes, considering how cutting edge that technology was. We have a lot of technology deaths and a lot of really heartbreaking stories.
[And there are] men who survived the war, like Morris Bailey: he was a baby, he was too young to get into the army, but the new aero squadron was taking 17-year-olds, so his parents let him sign up and he had to stop going to school and go. He survives the war. He surprises his family by coming home for Christmas in 1918. They recall him because they think there might be more fighting happening even after the armistice. He goes down to train and he dies in an airplane accident at the age of nineteen. He’d served for two years. He was a baby and he’s dead. The war is over. He dies in 1919. His parents had money; heartbroken, they write a book. There’s a little tiny book called “Morris Hall Bailey” with pictures of him as a little boy — in his rompers as a little boy. And it is heartbreaking to think how much that must have hurt that family.
What do you hope readers gain from the book?
The best thing to gain is an understanding of the amount of deaths, the fact that there were probably more, and the reason Memorial Auditorium existed was as a war monument — and now it’s going to decay. And should we, as a city, allow a war monument to what we thought was going to be the last big war ever –we were wrong — should we allow it to be closed and to be falling apart?
For me, that’s what I would want the public to get out of this: to understand that this here [points to a picture on the back of the book of a large memorial gathering], we don’t do this anymore. We don’t stand in droves out in front of Memorial Auditorium and have celebrations of these people. We’ve had so many wars since this war ended. They called it the War to End all Wars, and they were wrong. They were totally wrong. So I’d love the public to at least, comprehend that. That’s not what the book is about though. It’s not about saving Memorial Auditorium, but that would be a great outcome of the book.
Is there anything else you wish to share?
There are a lot of really neat stories in there. I think that’s the best part of the book. And the fact that there were women on a war monument for the first time. That was the greatest thing, too. And it’s integrated again, like the Civil War monument. We’ve got African-Americans on here. Their stories were hard to find, but we found them. By World War II, there were segregated monuments here in Worcester. And the African-American monument isn’t even on public ground. The fact that between World War I and II we go backwards rather than forwards is sad.
I would love it if books like this, where you actually read how people died and how awful it is, would make wars stop. For me, the most important thing is to get history into people’s hands.