Groton Public Library to serve as collection site for World War I project

Groton — Staff at the Connecticut State Library hope people from Groton and nearby towns will come forward on Feb. 2 if they’ve saved items from a relative or friend who served in World War I.

The state library is holding an event from noon until 4 p.m. that day at Groton Public Library, called “Remembering World War I: Sharing History/Preserving Memories,” to collect letters and other memorabilia to research and make part of a state archive. The project started two years ago. This is the second time the group has been in Eastern Connecticut.

“These men and women sacrificed in ways that we’re not asked to do today, and to remember them is important,” said Christine Pittsley, project manager for the Remembering World War I project for the state library.

The project has led to some striking finds.

At the project's first event, Howard Swanson, who was 87 at the time, arrived in Middletown with two boxes that belonged to his uncle, Jacob Bernasconi. Bernasconi served with 102nd Infantry and was severely wounded on July 21, 1918, at Chateau Thierry. Doctors doubted he’d survive, so they packed everything he had at the time — including a flashlight, his driver’s license, a pair of baby shoes sent from his fiancée as a token of good luck and an empty grenade — put them in a personal effects box and shipped it home.

Bernasconi survived; he had shrapnel removed 17 years later. Swanson ended up with the box and saved it, virtually untouched, for years. The wax seal was still on the outside when Swanson brought it to state library staff.

“He was so touched that his uncle’s memory was going to live on and that we were going to preserve his uncle’s collection because his children never knew him," Pittsley said.  About a year later, Pittsley said she ran into Swanson's son, who told him how much the project meant to his father.

“If nothing else happens with this project, that moment was enough for me,” she said.

So far, the state library has created profiles of about 100 soldiers, nurses and sailors and has catalogued 500 objects associated with them. Each person has a webpage with a biography explaining what’s known about them and the associated images. The library still is adding items to the collection online.

At the Groton event, state library staff also will interview people who bring in memorabilia to find out more about it. Staff will collect up to five items from each person; a personal effects box would be considered one item. The search isn’t limited to Connecticut soldiers, but any Connecticut resident who has saved WWI items.

Michael Spellmon, reference librarian who oversees the local history room at Groton Public Library, has a small collection of his own. His great-grandfather, whose birth name was Gilbert A. Holley, served on the USS Connecticut before the United States entered WWI. His great-grandmother was in vaudeville and was working on a British passenger liner that was captured and sunk by a German ship called the Karlsruhe early in the war. Spellmon has a photo of some German sailors aboard the ship after the capture.

“We are a military community, and a lot of times it runs in the family, so someone serving in the Navy might have something that was their great-grandfather’s,” Spellmon said. He hopes people will bring in even small items to be photographed and scanned. 

“You may think there’s little value, but researchers can gain a lot from things,” he said.

Groton Public Library also will commemorate the 100th anniversary of U.S. involvement in WWI with a traveling exhibit beginning Feb. 1 and other programs.

d.straszheim@theday.com

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