By Joseph A. Curtatone
(The opinions and views expressed in the commentaries of The Somerville Times belong solely to the authors of those commentaries and do not reflect the views or opinions of The Somerville Times, its staff or publishers)
This week we celebrate Veterans Day, honoring all who have served in the U.S. Armed Forces, but this day had another name in the past. Veterans Day began as Armistice Day to mark the end of fighting in World War I at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day, of the eleventh month. So it’s appropriate that our annual memorial service held with the Somerville Allied Veterans Council takes place at the Dilboy VFW Post, which is named after Somerville resident George Dilboy, who fought and died in World War I and received the Medal of Honor. Dilboy’s story is well-known in our community, with the stadium named after him and his memorial that sits outside City Hall, but this Veterans Day, I’d like to highlight some other Somervillians who served our nation in WWI, The Great War.
Take for instance Howard Kullberg. The Air Service of the U.S. Army—the forerunner to today’s Air Force—rejected Kullberg because it deemed him to be too short, according to the Royal Air Force Museum. So, he traveled to Toronto and joined the British Army’s Royal Flying Corps (RFC) in 1917 (now that’s true Somerville gumption!). The following year, he deployed to France, joining the No. 1 Squadron and claiming 19 combat victories during the war. Kullberg’s final victory was shortly followed by a chase in which he was shot three times in the leg, and spent the rest of the war in the hospital. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his service.
Coincidentally, Kullberg wasn’t the only Somerville resident to join the RFC in World War I. Elliot Adams Chapin was born and raised in West Somerville and had a history of military service in his family. Chapin left Harvard before completing his degree and enrolled in the Naval Reserve Force when the U.S. entered the war, but a minor defect in one eye prevented his admission to the Air Service, and he was honorably discharged. Another Somervillian who wouldn’t take no when it came to defending his country, he then enlisted in the RFC, became a first lieutenant and was deployed to France. During a bombing run on Thionville, he was shot down by a German plane. According to Memoirs of the Harvard Dead in the War Against Germany, a friend and fellow 99th Squadron member, Lieutenant Walker, was fifty feet away from Chapin when his plane went down, and wrote of his death, “When he saw death staring him in the face, I saw him turn around to his observer, reach out h/is hand, and shake hands with him. He died a hero’s death, unafraid, and was a son for any parent to be proud of.”
Another Somerville resident who displayed extraordinary heroism was Herbert W. Barrett, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army, Company H, 8th Infantry, 2d Division. According to his citation, on Oct. 3, 1918, near Blanc Mont, France, other officers in his company had been killed during battle, and Barrett reorganized the company and led them in an attack. Under heavy fire from an enemy machine gun, Barrett rescued two of his men who had been wounded and buried by a high-explosive shell, and he himself was wounded while administering first aid to a member of his company. The attack he led ultimately led to the capturing of the machine-gun nest.
Two other Somerville natives who went on to have distinguished careers in the Armed Forces had their service begin in World War I. Ralph Waldo Christie eventually became a vice admiral in the U.S. Navy and its “premiere torpedo expert,” commanding submarine operations in the South Pacific during World War II, but his career started during World War I. After graduating from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1915, he was assigned to the U.S.S. New Jersey and then the U.S.S. Montana, before becoming one of the first graduates of the Naval Submarine School in Connecticut. He eventually was assigned to the Atlantic Convoy during World War I, before earning his master’s degree from MIT and going on to his distinguished career.
Meanwhile, Paul Gardner was one of the “Monuments Men”—soldiers assigned to the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section that protected cultural artifacts and art during World War II, and the first Monuments Man to reach mainland Italy. But before then, he was a Somerville High graduate who attended MIT from 1913 to 1917, leaving before completing his degree to join the U.S. Army Coast Artillery Corp. Serving in France during World War I, according to the Monuments Men Foundation, Gardner attained the rank of Captain and at the age of 21 was awarded France’s Croix De Guerre with Palm medal, which is given to those who demonstrate acts of heroism when engaging with the enemy.
These are only a few stories of Somerville veterans who served in World War I, and only a fraction of the stories of service of Somervillians throughout the generations, from the Revolutionary War to those in the Armed Forces today. As you enjoy this Veterans Day holiday, I hope you can find the time to express your thanks to those who have served our community and our nation. And as you carry on throughout the year, I hope too that you’ll remember that these brave, selfless and determined individuals also helped shape that special mix of verve and doggedness that still makes us proud to be Somervillians today.