South Boston April 29th Speech by Mary Ryan
Good morning everyone. Two years ago my friend Kevin Conroy and I returned here to our former high school to take another look at the WWI portraits hanging outside the auditorium. I was awestruck to see those faces again with their haunting expressions, and so began the mission to learn about the service of these men and to tell everyone about this memorial. I am honored to briefly share with you a little of what I have learned.
By the time the Armistice was declared on Nov. 11, 1918, over 189,000 Massachusetts men and women served in uniform in the Great War, and thankfully, most returned home. Hundreds of South Bostonians served, many of whom attended this high school and whose names are inscribed in the wooden honor roll inside the guidance office.
The Murray Family of L St. sent 4 sons to war and all survived, including Frank Wilson’s grandfather, Sgt. Ralph Murray of the 104th Infantry. Despite serious wounds suffered in the 2nd Battle of the Marne that left him permanently lame, the highly decorated Sgt. Murray returned home and quietly resumed his life. Another young South Bostonian and member of the Yankee Division who returned home and started a family was Private 1st class John J. Casey, Father Casey’s Grandfather.
But many did not return. 5,775 Massachusetts men and women died while in service, over 1100 were Bostonians. Many more died shortly after the war. In Boston as elsewhere across the country, people debated how to best honor the memory of the men and women that served and died. Statues, buildings, and even man-made islands on which to house the Memorial were considered. As late as 1929 Boston proposed the construction of a 20,000 person auditorium which would also serve as the City’s Memorial to World War dead.
Around 1930, Boston’s Mayor James Curley began a 2 year public appeal for photos of all Boston’s war dead to create “imperishable” portraits. Historical newspaper articles report that over 1,170 of these portraits were created and dedicated at schools throughout Boston beginning on Nov. 11, 1932. The City Council hoped that new one day all the portraits would hang in the War Memorial Building but the war memorial was never realized. Many of the Boston schools where the portraits were dedicated have since closed, and the whereabouts of the other 1000+ Boston portraits are mostly unknown.
The 104 South Boston portraits were dedicated in this very auditorium 85 years ago before a crowd of over 2,000 people! That this ceremony drew such a huge crowd 14 years after the war ended is a testament to how deeply the South Boston community felt about their Fallen, and how invested this community was in their answer to the call to war. Over the years, 3 portraits have gone missing. One of them belonged to Michael J. Perkins, awarded the Medal of Honor (and I quote) “for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity above and beyond the call of duty in action with the enemy at Belleau Bois”. We will probably never know who the other 2 missing portraits belonged to, or how many other South Bostonians’ portraits ended up in another Boston school, as in the case of Peter Curran, recently discovered at a West Roxbury elementary school.
Behind each of these portraits was a man with a story. Our Fallen came from various walks of life and pre-war professions and include a dentist, a lawyer, and several engineers. They worked as tailors, teamsters, train conductors, laborers, laundry workers, masons, and machinists. Ensign John Joseph O’Connell, United State Navy was a member of the Boston Police Department who died while on duty on the “Bridgeport”. The Boston Fire Department also lost one of their own from South Boston, John Patrick Dowd. A fire boat was named in his honor.
They were officers and enlisted men, most who served in the Army as part of the Yankee Division, but amongst them were 7 Marines and 19 Navy. Twenty-one of these men were foreign born, immigrants who came to South Boston from Ireland, England, Belgium, Denmark, Canada, Italy, Russia, and Lithuania, and they joined the fight for their adopted country. Several of our young men joined the Canadian and British Expeditionary Forces before the U.S. had even entered the War.
Some left behind wives and small children, but most were too young to have married, like 19 year old Thomas Flanagan who died when his ship the “Jacob Jones” was torpedoed and sank by a German submarine. They were killed in action, died of their severe wounds and effects of gassing, plane crashes, drowning, and by disease. Almost half of the men we remember today died in the Influenza pandemic.
Many of the men depicted in the portraits remain buried in the fields of France, but others like Charles O’Connor, Frederick Seiffert and William Joseph Conroy were never found. Their names are etched in memorials for the missing in France and England.
After the war, some families like those of Michael Perkins, and Joseph Kaes, chose to have their loved ones’ remains returned to the U.S. The bodies returned home to South Boston were often laid in state at the Municipal Building or Perkins Post and received a hero’s funeral.
From the Lower End to City Point, VFW Posts, Parks, Playgrounds and Hero Squares were named for South Boston’s beloved war dead. Lieutenant Roland Winterton’s Hero Square is at Columbia Rd and P St. He died in an airplane accident and was the only member of the South Boston Yacht Club lost in the War. A little farther down along the greenie near the WWII Memorial is a marker that memorializes Thomas J Fitzgerald, a member of the Pere Marquette Knights of Columbus, and namesake of the Fitzgerald Post 561.
When you bring your kids to the Lee playground at Medal of Honor Park at M Street, please tell them about the gallant and decorated Major Christopher Lee. He returned home after being badly wounded but later died of surgical complications to remove shrapnel from his leg. And when you see the Hero Square at O and 4th, please think of my great uncle, Private Joseph Kaes, only 22 yrs. old when he died from gunshot wounds suffered in the Meuse Argonne offensive 10 days after the war ended.
Although the Great War of 100 years ago has been largely forgotten by many, it shaped the course of the 20th century and was not that long ago. Many of you had family that served in WWI. These men were the parents and uncles of the Greatest Generation. Thank you for being here today to remember their sacrifice.