Editor’s note: Today’s feature is the first to spotlight Pennsylvania and its role in World War I. We begin with the Pennsylvania Military Museum, which is a national shrine to the 28th Division, under which thousands of area residents served in the war. Nov. 11 is the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice to end “The Great War.”
BOALSBURG — One-hundred years ago, some 324,000 Pennsylvanians answered the call to serve in “The Great War.” It was a considerable contribution to the growing war effort and the foundation for one of the military’s most storied divisions.
The history of the 28th Infantry Division is detailed, preserved and on display at the Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg, a short drive west for those in Union County a little over an hour’s drive away for those in Northumberland County.
Pennsylvania’s role in “The Great War,” or World War I, was significant. Pa. Years prior to joining the war, Pa. National Guard members had recently returned from the U.S.-Mexico border and had been drilled in the modern weapons of the time, notably the machine gun.
Pennsylvania’s allotment of over 320,000 soldiers amounted just under 10 percent of the American military at the time.
The United States was not ready for a war, though. Military preparedness was non-existent. There was no sense of America’s role at the time in what was dubbed the war to end all wars.
“In April 1917, America’s idea of foreign policy was isolation — staying out of it,” said Tyler Gum, site administrator at the Pennsylvania Military Museum. “The citizens though, they weren’t naive. They knew something was happening and knew more than likely the United States would have to be involved.”
The “Preparedness Movement” began stateside, despite the desire of President Woodrow Wilson to remain neutral.
“In 1916 and ‘17 the military structure and force we had is nothing like it is today,” said Gum. “You just didn’t have the thousands of able-bodies men and woman at the ready.”
As questions swirled over how, when and even if the United States would become involved, two key moments solidified the United States’ decision to enter WWI.
First was the sinking of the British luxury liner Lusitania by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915, which claimed the lives of 128 Americans. Second was the Zimmerman Telegram between Germany and Mexico in January 1917. It proposed a military alliance between the Germans and Mexico should the US enter the war.
Boalsburg is significant because it was the staging ground for the training of troops — even before there was an inkling the US would be at war. Land owned by Theodore Boal was used for the training what would become “Boal Troop,” a horse-mounted machine-gun unit, which is memoralized at the site. Boal was an ardent supporter of the Preparedness Movement, having lived in France and with a son serving in the French cavalry.
“Boal raises a group for a machine gun company,” said Gum. “A militia pops up and uses the surrounding hillsides and ridges as a backdrop for training. He financed this out of his own pocket, with other investors. This unit became the foundation of mechanized warfare.”
Boal had moved back to Pa. after studying art in Paris. His support for US involvement continued and provided funding for French military efforts.
Construction of what would become Camp Boal began in late 1916, funded by Boal, who later became captain of the troop that became part of the Pa. National Guard. It would soon be deployed to the Texas border.
By April 1917, a declaration of war came and the Pa. National Guard was designated as the 28th Infantry Division. Boal’s troops, having returned from the south, became Company A of the 10th Machine Gun Battalion and left for war in May 1918.
Pennsylvania had three divisions in the war — the 28th, 79th and 80th, and each was shipped to war as part of the American Expedition Force.
Men from Central Pa. were assigned to the 28th and shipped in September 1917 to Camp Hancock, Ga. The first unit of the division arrived in France May 14, 1917. The last element of the 28th arrived in France on June 11.
Among those shipped overseas was Col. Wallace Fetzer, who had been superintendent of schools in Milton. Fetzer would be the first Pa. officer killed in action in the war when he fell July 28, 1918, in Fresnes, France. He had been second in command of the 110th Regiment, 28th Infantry Division. His story will be detailed in a future edition of “Honoring Valley Veterans.”
The roles played by Fetzer and Boal showed the makeup of the US military at the time and the importance of citizen soldiers.
“Everyone was unified,” said Gum of the attitude at the time. “There was a reason to fight — the greater good. There were still issues that existed in society at the time — income and racism — but people came together. It was very much a grassroots effort.”
Inscribed on the 107th Field Artillery Memorial — one of the many monuments at Boalsburg — is the following: “The names inscribed on this monument are the names of men and boys who were not soldiers by profession. They were ordinary citizens of this great commonwealth when the call came. They put away their tools, closed their desk tops, covered their typewriters, banked their fires, hung up their overalls and went fort together to meet theenemy on foreign soil.
“They met the finest trained soldiers in the world and defeated them decisively in the battles of the Aisne-Marne, Oise-Aisne, Meuse-Argonne and Ypre-Lys. This they were able to do because they had faith in God and love for their country in their hearts.”
Chris Brady is managing editor at The Standard-Journal and author of three Vietnam-based books, “Remembering Firebase Ripcord,” “A War We Can’t Forget” and the novel, “We Answered the Call.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.