World War I photos, documents to be scanned Saturday at Otis Library in Norwich

Norwich — Local historians and librarians are hoping families scour their attics and storage chests this week for long-lost treasures from 100 years ago, when local young men marched off to war, wrote letters and sent mementos home from Europe or even fashioned trinkets out of spent shells.

Otis Library will host the Connecticut State Library’s “WWI Digitization Day” on Saturday. The effort is part of the state library’s digital archive effort started with a pilot trial in 2014 and held at 42 libraries across the state.

Otis is the last public library to host the event and the only one in southeastern Connecticut, Otis reference librarian and archivist Steve Fithian said.

Christine Pittsley, state library project coordinator, said by summer the more than 5,000 images scanned and more than 450 family stories will be posted to the website www.ctinworldwar1.org.

“I’m excited to come to Norwich, because there were so many people who served, and there are many families still in the area,” Pittsley said. She added that Saturday’s event is open to people from anywhere and to images of all World War I service people and all items, no matter what country.

No weapons will be allowed for safety reasons, library officials said.

“It’s really important that we don’t care where the soldiers came from,” Pittsley said. “We have German and Czech soldiers. If they served in World War I, we want to hear about it.”

The state library will bring a digital scanner to create a digital record of items such as photographs, discharge papers, letters written home or to soldiers, war bonds, war service certificates, medals and memorabilia. Items from the home front also are welcome, Fithian said.

“We’re looking for anything from the World War I era,” he said. “Liberty bonds, posters, anything to do with the Red Cross, any auxiliary things. Just about anything on the topic.”

Norwich Historian Dale Plummer, who is working with a committee on a Norwich celebration in November to mark the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day, has been promoting the digitization service to residents and local collectors. Plummer is researching the 1,500 to 1,800 Norwich servicemen he has identified so far.

“It’s very exciting,” Plummer said. “They’ve found a lot of stuff out there. Obviously, there are no surviving World War I veterans, but there are children and grandchildren who might have citations, letters and other items.”

Plummer contributed items from his own family to the project. He donated to the state library a postcard his great uncle Henry Littlejohn, a soldier, sent to Littlejohn's sister, Plummer’s grandmother. And like sailors at sea who crafted mementos for loved ones during long stretches of boredom, World War I soldiers created what came to be called “trench art" or "shell art,” Plummer said.

“People would bring back spent shell casings they would fashion into works of art, which are pretty impressive, some of them,” Plummer said.

He gave to the state library a shell jewelry box his great uncle had given to his sister.

Otis Library this month has an exhibit of World War I artifacts in the atrium. Many of the items came from the attic of Civil War era Gov. William A. Buckingham's home next door to Otis. Buckingham donated his home to the Grand Army of the Republic upon his death, and a local veterans’ group now owns the home.

The library display includes a German bayonet sheath, a German cartridge box, an American ammunition belt and soldier’s hats, including one that was a British officer's. Former State Troubadour Tom Callinan of Norwich, who also is a member of the 100th anniversary committee, loaned the library a WWI helmet for the exhibit.

Otis Library has posted its own digitized photo album of World War I photographs from the Dugas family photo collection, donated to the library after the death of longtime Taftville photographer Rene Dugas. The 59 photos by Prime Dugas are posted on the library’s website as an album in the historical photo archive section.

Norwich soldiers and some incredible stories already are in the state library archive. A year ago, Mary Beth Applegate went to a digitization day and told Pittsley about her great uncle, Walter Patrick Moran, the first Norwich soldier drafted, the first sent abroad and the first to be wounded.

Moran suffered burns and shrapnel wounds from a German gas artillery shell. Fellow Norwich soldier Irving Bogue took him to a hospital but was told the next day Moran had died. Bogue went to check the body bag, and found that Moran still was alive.

His family back home believed Moran was dead for months as he lay recovering in the hospital. The photo his great-niece brought for scanning showed Moran sitting outside the French hospital.

Plummer added a postscript to Moran’s story.

“He came back and under (President Franklin D. Roosevelt),” he became postmaster of Norwich, Plummer said. “And there’s lots of stories like that.”

c.bessette@theday.com

If You Go

What: Connecticut State Library "WWI Digitization Day"

When: 10:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Saturday

Where: Otis Library, Community Room, 261 Main St., Norwich

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