By Mary McTamaney
As Thanksgiving weekend came to a close, we had a visit from neighbors who had just returned from a family trip to Texas. We handed over their mail that we had collected and they gave us a wonderful gift: a new photo of their son in his U. S. Airman’s uniform, taken as he completed basic instruction at Lackland Air Force Base. Our neighbors had gone to Texas to watch their son graduate and move on to advanced training (after he enjoyed a Thanksgiving Day with them and the rest of his family). It seemed strange to look at the tall young man in the crisp uniform and remember the little toddler who used to come down the block to dig in the garden with us. Kevin Battipaglia will now join the ranks of citizen soldiers who protect us from harm and contribute to the recovery and safety of those caught in disasters both natural and man-made. Kevin will come home after advanced training to be part of the Air National Guard at Stewart. Whether they are taking supplies to tsunami victims across the globe or ferrying materials to other military bases, the Guard at Newburgh maintains a large fleet of aircraft. Many of their members have been deployed for one or more tours of duty so there is no guarantee of a part-time mission when one joins.
That has been the case with Newburgh’s various National Guard units through history. Men and materials paraded out of our armories in every war. A clear testament to that is the set of bronze plaques inside the lobby of the South William Street Armory building where the new Newburgh Armory Unity Center just opened in the gymnasium of that complex. Two large plaques name the local men and one woman who died in World War I. The plaques were moved from the old armory on Broadway and Johnston Street to the new facility so remembrance of the sacrifices of local citizen soldiers in “The Great War” would not be forgotten by succeeding generations.
History classes taught us that the First World War consumed soldiers like a fire-breathing dragon striding across Europe. The trench-style warfare, the use of poison gas and machine guns, the extreme weather conditions and lack of sanitation and re-supply, caused men to die in numbers not known since the Civil War. That comparison may be the key to local involvement in that early 20th century war.
Newburgh in 1917-1918 still had many living Civil War veterans. They knew misery in battle and vowed to serve the new generation of troops as much as they could from the home front. Civil War veterans and their wives organized and led local supply campaigns and civil defense programs. They spearheaded the fundraising of local Liberty Loan Drives to assure that enough materials could be purchased for troops in the field and raised over $13.5 million dollars. Maybe there was still some collective memory of the stories of Revolutionary supplies being so hard to come by in that war too. For whatever reasons, Newburgh was a beehive of troop support activities during World War I.
Young boys collected pennies for postage and then met troop trains down on Front Street at our busy railroad station and offered to mail letters for the passing soldiers. School children stayed after school for hours. Boys from fourth grade on rolled bandages from donated muslin and girls knitted washcloths and scarves. The Newburgh Red Cross chapter had to move three times in two years because of all the volunteers who came in to work – over 11,500 local residents. The chapter equipped every man who left Newburgh with hand-made sweaters, caps, wool socks and personal hygiene products.
The Selective Service was created. Newburgh’s draft board was led by Col. Joseph Dickey who referred to the men in every call as “Selects” rather than “Draftees.” Like the Orange Blossoms in his Civil War who were the blossom of our youth, Dickey believed that these draftees were the highest and best selection of the young of the 1910’s. Dickey’s fears that he would not reach his federal quota of draftees was soon set aside when young local men exceeded each call to service. And each call was heralded by the community who met the new troops at the Broadway Armory to cheer them off on their way.
Perhaps the best day was July 22, 1918 when 190 new “Selects” were scheduled to leave Newburgh. Their call was to muster at 5 a.m. on Broadway and Johnston and then march to the train station for deployment. 6,500 people showed up to march with them – people who then had to march back uphill to work for the rest of the day! Ten bands came to play them along their route: five from Newburgh, two from Beacon, and one each from Marlboro, Walden and West Point. Other Selects were sent off on other dates in similar fashion.
My neighbor Kevin left for Texas with just three other young men from a hangar at Stewart. He will likely return home alone as my husband and all my friends did from Vietnam. No matter the feelings for the fights we are now in around the world, we can learn from our grandparents how to treat the lonely, the fearful and the weary who go off to serve us and return to continue doing the same.
The above article by Mary McTamaney, City of Newburgh Historian and Society board member, has been adapted from column originally printed in the December 1, 2010 issue of the Mid-Hudson Times. Posted here with permission.