The Governors Island World War One Memorial Project has been successfully completed and three bronze tablets are back where they belong on the island. In three heartwarming rededication ceremonies held during Camp Doughboy WWI History Weekend, September 16-17, the memorials were unveiled by the U.S. Army’s storied 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 1st Division. The Iron Rangers traveled from Fort Riley, Kansas, to lead the ceremonies, and were joined by forty WWI reenactors.
The Memorial Project was focused on three sites:
*Private Merle David Hay, one of the first three Americans killed in the war;
*Captain Harry L. Kimmell, a company commander who died at Fléville;
*General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Over the years the three went missing or were damaged. The memorial project worked independently to fund the restoration, and I was happy to lead the efforts.
To have the Army send ten men to New York was amazing, and it was an incredible honor to host them on Governors Island. The color guard, dressed in reproduction WWI uniforms, was the same color guard that was in Paris in July for the U.S. WWI centennial ceremonies with the French government.
Lieutenant Colonel Jon Meredith, the battalion commander of 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry, led the command team. LTC Meredith delivered remarks on both days and truly was a fine leader to represent the famous Big Red One, and a regiment that had been stationed at Fort Jay from 1922 to 1942. It was the 16th Infantry that named the Governors Island roads, fields, and docks in 1928 for their fallen comrades of the Great War.
“It was here that our regiment was recognized by then Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, as ‘New York’s Own’, a name that we still proudly wear, even though we are now stationed closer to Manhattan, Kansas, than we are to the island of Manhattan,” LTC Meredith said. “Today I am joined by an honor detachment from the 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment as we return the ‘colors’ of the Regiment to Governors Island for the first time since World War II. This island truly holds a special place in the history of this great city, in the history of our nation, and the history of our regiment.”
After the opening ceremonies, a parade was held that began on the Parade Ground and marched to the first memorial. The color guard from Fort Riley led the procession, followed by the active duty soldiers and reenactors. The living history reenactors came from the Long Island Living History Association, the East Coast Doughboys, and the New Jersey Field Music Group.
The first memorial in the project to be rededicated was to General Pershing. In 1960, for the centennial of his birth, an oak tree was planted and a bronze plaque was unveiled. It stands in front of Pershing Hall, overlooking Manhattan. While the tree has done exceptionally well, the plaque was lost or stolen, so a new one was expertly replicated and rededicated. Dr. Libby O’Connell, commissioner on the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, delivered the opening remarks, saying that General Pershing’s commitment to America can never be forgotten. LTC Meredith stepped up and said that he’s seen many memorials to General Pershing, but in his estimation this is the most fitting.
Following the remarks, the second memorial, just a few hundred yards away, was rededicated. It’s on Kimmell Road, and honors Captain Harry L. Kimmell, a U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen who left Annapolis and joined the Army. He went to France with the 16th Infantry and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, twice. Captain Kimmell died while leading Company C in combat. In a fitting tribute, remarks were given by an active duty soldier from the New York City area, Major Jared Nichols, the Battalion Executive Officer of 1st Battalion, 16th Infantry. Major Nichols wore a replica WWI uniform similar to what Captain Kimmell would have been attired in.
“In October of 1918 the 16th Regiment was ordered to attack to seize Fléville,” Major Nichols said. “It is remembered as one of the most horrific days in the history of the regiment. During the action around the town of Fléville, Captain Kimmell led Company C into action against a strongly held German position in the Argonne Forest. He was mortally wounded in the advance, but the company continued to fight to the objective. He died the following day. He was posthumously awarded a second Distinguished Service Cross, and was promoted to the rank of Major. He was 22 year old. You can visit him today at Arlington National Cemetery.”
“This past summer I had the chance to visit Fléville in the Meuse-Argonne,” Major Nichols continued. “It is a small medieval farming community that time has seemingly passed by. In the center of the town is Place du 16 Régiment d’Infanterie Etats Unis… a small stone monument with the crest of our own 16th Regiment. In the regimental history the men described attacking over the slain Doughboys of the 35th Infantry Division strewn about the ravines surrounding the town in the tangled terrain of the Argonne Forest. The three bloodiest days in the history of the regiment are The Wheatfield at Gettysburg, Omaha Beach, and the dark forests of Argonne in October of 1918…Going into action around Fléville the regiment mustered 3,500 men and 69 officers. Coming out of action only 1,800 men and 32 officers survived. Today all members of the Regiment wear a crest bearing the blue and white shield of that small town, in memory of the heroic actions of those that came before us. “
Two soldiers with the same rank unveiled Captain Kimmell’s new plaque: Captain Mark Gaudet, Bravo Company Commander, and Captain Jon Swanson, Assistant Operations Officer.
The groups gathered the following day for a second day of ceremonies, one that saw a sleepy Sunday morning on Governors Island transformed into a grand parade. With the same participants as the day before, joined by civilians, the public, and Gen. Pershing reenactor David Shuey from Virginia on his horse, Aura Lea. The parade began by Castle Williams and proceeded past tree-lined Regimental Row to rededicate the bronze memorial to Private Merle David Hay, killed Nov. 3, 1917.
Lieutenant Colonel Meredith said, “Private Hay may have been the first killed as several hundred Germans conducted a surprise attack to test the inexperienced American troops. Witnesses saw Private Hay using a bayonet to fight two German soldiers during the battle, and he was found dead after the attack. Hay was found face down in the mud. He had been shot beneath his right eye. His throat was cut. The watch his mother had given him had stopped at 2:40 a.m. Next to him were Corporal James Gresham of Evansville, Indiana and Private Thomas Enright of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “
“These were the first three Soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force Killed in Action in the trenches and mud of the Western Front,” LTC Meredith said. “Like our Soldiers today, Private Hay was a volunteer. Willing to fight for his country without question…116,500 American men would also fall before the Armistice on November 11, 1918. That is almost 350 men killed a day and every day that Americans were on the Western Front. In our battalion headquarters sits a photo of Hay, Gresham, and Enright; as a reminder to us of their sacrifice.”
The ceremony concluded with the rededication of Private Hay’s plaque and the unveiling by two enlisted men from his former unit, Sergeant Major Wirth, Operations Sergeant Major of the Iron Rangers; and Master Sergeant McInroy, former First Sergeant of Headquarters Company. The parade then took a trip from Hay Road and through the archway of Liggett Hall onto Division Road. This roadway is named for 1st Division, and the parade proceeded to pass by the memorial on it to Corporal Gresham. After the youngest members of the New Jersey Field Music Group beautifully rendered “Taps”, the parade continued back to the Parade Ground.
The three memorials were restored and installed by Peaceable Kingdom Memorials. The team of Beth Woolley, Peter Woolley, and Richard Ardolino did a magnificent job. The company has worked on numerous memorials and monuments on the Jersey Shore, many for veterans, so their work is appreciated on Governors Island.
I want to thank the National Park Service, the Trust For Governors Island, the men of the Iron Rangers, the WWI Centennial Committee for New York City, United War Veterans Council, and all of the reenactors (who braved the heat in wool uniforms). When I started this project a few years ago, I was not ever imagining that the installation and rededication ceremonies would ever be so grand and touching to take part in.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick has written and edited seven books with ties to New York history, including "The Governors Island Explorer's Guide" and "World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War." Kevin is a licensed sightseeing guide and has been leading walking tours since 1999. He resides in Manhattan.