Soldiers from New London experienced horrors, heroics in World War I
Editor's note: This story is drawn from the writings of Charles T. Senay, Connecticut military records and the archives of The Day. This is a two-part series running Sunday and Monday.
Capt. Charles T. Senay steadied his Springfield rifle, aimed at the machine-gun-wielding German moving toward him, and fired. The bullet sailed high into the air.
He aimed lower, fired a second time, and missed again.
“The third time I aimed at his feet and took the top of his head off with his helmet,” Senay later wrote.
The 26-year-old was one of hundreds of young men from New London who fought in World War I, which began 100 years ago this month.
Soldiers and sailors from the Whaling City seemed to be everywhere once the U.S. joined the war in 1917. Official records and ancient newspaper stories bring their varied experiences alive, none more so than Senay’s, preserved in an unpublished memoir called “Shavetail to Captain.”
“About this time I was in a very large shell hole with several of my men,” Senay wrote of the Battle of Cantigny. “… An in-coming shell collapsed the shell hole and I was upended and buried alive with a dead or dying soldier on each side of me. Fortunately, one of my feet was exposed and members of my company dug me out before I could suffocate.”
Afterward, Senay reported to his battalion commander.
“He looked startled and said, ‘You were reported dead.’ I replied, ‘Slight exaggeration.’”
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Senay had joined the war on his own, but the biggest group of New Londoners to fight were local National Guardsmen called to active duty.
Now soldiers of the 56th Coast Artillery Regiment, they stood in the freezing cold on Feb. 22, 1918. Mayor Ernest E. Rogers faced them from the steps of New London City Hall and spoke ringing words about liberty and justice.
Behind him was a giant honor roll board inscribed with their names. With this farewell ceremony, the city was sending its sons to the trenches of France.
“For your country,” Rogers said, “ … never dream a dream but of serving her as she bids you, though that service carry you through a thousand hells.”
Those wounded in action would go through more hell than most. Pfc. Charles K. Stahler of the 56th, a yardmaster for the New Haven Railroad, was wounded in the back at Château-Thierry. He spent the rest of the war in a hospital.
Others who shared his fate included Pvt. Louis Zimmerman, a presser of pants born in Russia, who was wounded in the Argonne Forest. Pvt. Abraham Gershowitz, another Russian immigrant, was wounded Nov. 11, 1918, the day the war ended.
William H. Crocker, however, never saw combat. A bellhop at the Mohican Hotel, he joined up as a private and by the end of the war had been promoted to acting sergeant. But Crocker was black, and the U.S. military was still segregated, with many African-American troops relegated to support roles.
More than 30 of New London’s black residents served in the war, many in stevedore regiments, engineer service battalions or pioneer infantry units, which performed construction and repair duties.
While stevedoring was not front-line work, Pvt. Edward Gilles of the 301st Stevedore Regiment was severely wounded in action, according to state records, and was left disabled.
Filling out a questionnaire after the war, Crocker, who did not go overseas, was asked how the experience of being in camp had affected him. “It improved my health and mind,” he responded.
Asked for his attitude toward military service in general, he wrote, “Patriotic feeling.”
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Charles Senay, who had graduated from Trinity College and the University of Illinois and taught briefly, was taking in the ghastly casualness of killing in wartime. He recounted it matter-of-factly.
“An artilleryman went up to an MP as a column of prisoners was being marched by his gun position,” he wrote. “He said to the MP, ‘How about giving me a prisoner?’ The MP said, ‘Why?’ The artilleryman replied, ‘They killed my brother this morning.’ The MP said, ‘Take your pick.’ The artilleryman picked out a man and shot him.”
In combat, little separated the living from the dead.
“The Germans had a nasty weapon which we knew as the ‘Whiz Bang,’” Senay wrote. “… One of our officers was talking with one of his lieutenants when a whiz bang decapitated the lieutenant. It not only was nerve wracking, but it left the captain’s face with a thick poultice of blood and brains. There was no water available.”
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With the U.S. a latecomer to the war and most of the fighting on land, the Navy saw relatively little action. But two sailors from New London survived one of the deadliest incidents.
The USS Mount Vernon, a troop transport, was headed home on Sept. 5, 1918, when the crew spotted a periscope and fired on it. A German U-boat surfaced and launched a torpedo. The Mount Vernon tried to turn but was struck amidships.
The explosion killed 36 sailors, wounded 13, and knocked out half of the ship’s boilers. Though heavily damaged, the Mount Vernon safely reached the French port of Brest.
The secretary of the Navy commended the crew members for remaining at their stations after the attack. Among them were Seaman Stanley M. Cobb and Engineer 2nd Class Herbert Lewis.
Other New London contributors to the naval war included Thomas A. Scott of a well-known local salvage firm, who was recognized for organizing Navy salvage operations. Lt. Cmdr. Andrew Jackson Stone received the Navy Cross for inventing the “Y-gun bomb thrower,” used on destroyers and submarine chasers.
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The 28th U.S. Infantry was advancing on the village of Ploisy, France, under heavy fire when Senay, separated from his company, saw a German feign surrender to an approaching American, then kill him with a concealed pistol. Senay took aim at the German.
“He turned and saw the menacing rifle muzzle,” Senay wrote. “His hands shot into the air and he pleaded for mercy, calling on God, his mother and his family. I let him feel the full terror of death and then shot him beneath his armpit.”
Rejoining his company, he found disorder because of heavy casualties and, on his own initiative, reorganized large numbers of soldiers left leaderless in combat.
“I had been third ranking officer in my own battalion. As matters now stood, I was senior officer on this five battalion front.”
Two months later, Senay was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross.
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There were other heroics from New Londoners. Pfc. Richard Parkinson Jr. of the 14th Engineers was the conductor of an ammunition train on its way to the front. An enemy shell struck one of the cars and set it afire, and the train could have exploded.
Parkinson, trying to save nearby military camps rather than himself, stayed with the train and guided it to the nearest water plug, where he helped extinguish the fire.
Pvt. Albion Bogue, gassed in the Argonne Forest, was cited for gallantry in action. Pfc. Anton Buska was cited for bravery.
At the other extreme, Pvt. Mike Lurchwechic served for barely two months before he deserted from Camp Devens, Mass. Pvt. Charles Rainey skipped out three days before the armistice, and another soldier was dishonorably discharged and court-martialed.
Pvt. Edward J. McClure of the 102nd Infantry did his duty, but the effect it had on his later life is an intriguing question. He was wounded three times, including being gassed, and was honored for bringing a wounded man to a dressing station.
Somehow word reached home that he had been killed, and a star was placed next to his name on the city’s honor roll board.
But in April 1919, McClure appeared in New London, very much alive, and surprised his parents. The Day, which called him a hero, reported that he had fully recovered and was in good health. But his friends said he was never quite right again.
In 1927, he was charged with sexually assaulting a 6-year-old girl in an alley and was committed to the state hospital for the insane. He later escaped.
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As Senay, now a battalion commander, waited for his unit to join the Battle of St. Mihiel, he got to know a new lieutenant, an Ivy Leaguer with a blond mustache.
“He was utterly despondent, asserting that he was going to be killed in the battle,” Senay wrote. “We used every means to change his thought, but all to no avail.”
“ … That morning he jumped off, leading his platoon. … He was killed before he had gone a hundred yards. He was the only officer killed in the battalion in the battle.”
Later, in the Argonne Forest, Senay found cemeteries unearthed by shellfire with broken coffins scattered about.
“There were ancient bodies and remnants of bodies lying in every conceivable position,” he wrote. “It could well be called a Judgment Day.”
It would be Senay’s last battle. Slightly wounded, he was away from the front recuperating when the war ended.
Reflecting on his service the next year, he wrote in a veterans’ questionnaire, “My opinions on many matters have become more positive.”
“I understand life better.”