A framed photo I keep on a file cabinet in my home office shows a stone-faced young doughboy, circa 1917.
He was my only relative who served in the First World War. Actually our relationship was pretty distant and not by blood. He was a great-uncle by marriage, and dead before I was born.
The grainy photo of Pfc. George F. Cunningham of West Chester, Pa., was in the form of a postcard in an old family album my mom has. I first saw the image in the early 1990s. Intrigued, I had a negative and a print made.
And I set out to see what Great-Uncle George did “over there” in World War I as a member of Company B, 14th Engineer Regiment, U.S. Army.
I struck out with the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis http://www.archives.gov/st-louis/. They didn’t have a file on him. Apparently it was one of up to 18 million military personnel files destroyed in a 1973 fire.
But someone told me that under some circumstances, for example if George had been wounded and was getting compensation, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs might have a copy of his records, and I could find out with a simple phone call to the VA’s regional office in Philadelphia.
According to family lore, George had been poison-gassed in France. Maybe the VA had his records. It was worth a shot.
I don’t know if it’s this easy anymore, but one day in 1996 I called Veterans Affairs in Philly and an actual person answered the phone, punched George’s name into the computer and got a hit.
Yes, the VA had a file on him.
The guy gave me George’s service number, which I needed in order to make a formal, written request to the VA for a copy of George’s file.
Within a few months, I got a packet of more than 80 pages. It turned out there is no mention in George’s file that he was gassed. The papers say he wasn’t wounded, he was discharged in “good” physical condition and there’s no record of any medical treatment. Rather, the VA had a copy of his military records because after he died, his widow received death pension benefits from the government – initially $48 a month.
His widow was the former Ethyl Mae Pierce, one of my maternal grandmother’s older sisters. Ethyl and George, who was a carpenter, were married in June 1919, two months after he returned from Europe.
I know little about George. Family members told me he was troubled by what he had seen of the fighting in France. He might have been gassed, even if his records don’t show it, because documents don’t always tell the truth.
An aunt said George kept pigeons and fussed over them.
He died at age 58 in 1953, the year before I was born. Ethyl outlived him by more than three decades.
The papers I got from the VA show George enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard in May 1917, the month after the United States went to war against Germany to make the world “safe for democracy.” He was 21, of “excellent” character and in good health. One of the questions on his application was: “When were you last treated by a physician?” He scribbled “1912.”
He served with the American Expeditionary Force in France from March 1918 to April 1919, five months after the armistice. He was in on the defense of the Somme in April and May 1918, and the Allies’ Aisne-Marne counteroffensive that summer.
I wanted to know about George’s outfit, the 14th Engineers, so in 1997 I wrote to the U.S. Army Military History Institute in Carlisle, Pa. I got a packet of info saying the institute has three copies of a “History of the Fourteenth Engineers, U.S. Army, from May 1917 to May 1919,” published in 1923.
One day I drove out to Carlisle, two hours from my home in Allentown, and looked through the book. It has an appendix that lists George as one of about 225 men in Company B, part of a regimental roster that totaled 1,050 men. Their job was to build, operate and maintain light military railroads.
The picture of Great-Uncle George isn’t the only memento I have. On my bookshelf are Army Signal Corps binoculars, made at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory Optical Shop Annex in Rochester, N.Y. I don’t see a date on them, but they were George’s and he had given them to my grandfather.
I used to play with them when I was little, and once dropped them down the concrete steps to my grandparents’ basement. The last time my mom came to visit, she showed me the nick on one of the eyepieces.
You won’t catch me playing with them again.