Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Roads Classic (and Correction) — Edward I. Tinkham and the First American Flag

Since I have been publishing Roads to the Great War I haven't had to publish a correction, but this one is necessary and only fair to all the parties involved, which include two of America's leading universities, two American heroes who died serving in the war, and two of the regular contributors to this blog.

In August we presented a series by Patrick Gregory about how the Stanford University contingent of American Field Service volunteers, led by a distinguished young man named Arthur Kimber, was designated by Secretary of War Newton Baker to carry the first American flag to the battlefields of Europe, after the nation's declaration of war. They achieved their mission in a well-publicized ceremony in June of 1917. Patrick's story was fully accurate in all details. 

Unfortunately, your humble editor (now very, very humble) had major memory breakdown when he posted that series. It turns out that not only is there another claimant to the "First Flag Presented" honor, but I published a series covering that very group in January 2015.  Luckily for me, my friend and author of that series, Jim Patton, quickly pointed out the conflicting postings for me.  I've been wrestling with how to sort this out since then, and now I'm going to give it a try.  First, the other side of the story.  It turns out that when America declared war, there was already another American Field Service unit in place in France.  It was from Cornell University, and it was led by a dynamic young man named Edward Tinkham.  His unit carried an American flag into the front when it went into action at the Chemin des Dames sector on 23 May 1916, about a month before the Stanford group's ceremony.  It apparently did not receive the same level of publicity as the other group, and perhaps may have been forgotten, except that 14 years after the event, it received formal recognition from President Herbert Hoover at a memorial dedication at Cornell University.

Now, how can I make amends for contributing to the confusion?  The one thing that transcends the conflicting claims is the story of both of the men who led their universitys' efforts, Arthur Kimber of Stanford and Edward Tinkham of Cornell. Both started with the American Field Service, delivered their flags, became military pilots, died in service, and are buried in Europe. Since Edward's story is the one I forgot about, I'm going to reacquaint our readers with his story first.  Below is the last article in Jim Patton's series, to provide some context, along with links to the other pieces.  We will re-post Arthur Kimber's story at a later date.

Edward Tinkham of Cornell: Never to Return Home
by James Patton

Edward Tinkham was a Cornell University student who left school at the end of 1915 to join the American Ambulance Field Service (AFS) in France. He served throughout the battle of Verdun (with SSU 3 & 4) and was awarded the Croix de Guerre. He then returned to Cornell and recruited a whole section (TMU 526) for the AFS, which in April 1917 became the first American unit to become combatants, hauling shells and troops for the French on the Aisne. 

Student, Volunteer, Naval Aviator

Later he joined the new U.S. Navy aviation service, trained in France, and served as a seaplane pilot at the NAS Porto Corsini in Italy. For this service he received the Italian Croce al Merito di Guerra. Vice Admiral William S. Sims, former chief of U.S. Naval Forces in European Waters, in testimony before the Senate in 1920, spoke about Navy aviation during the war:

The only one of our forces that were in contact with an enemy that did not get away, an enemy that was willing to fight, were, necessarily, air pilots, and they are all officers; and they want to be well-educated officers, too, because they have got a difficult proposition to handle when they are up in the air; it is navigation. . .

And speaking specifically about NAS Porto Corsini:

The air forces which had an opportunity to fight enemy forces that were willing to fight, because a large part of the time the enemy air forces were at least equal, and sometimes superior, to, ours.

American Volunteers Monument France – Edward Tinkham Is Included in Those Remembered
(Contributor James Patton Is Center Right in Blue Shirt and Cap)

Edward Tinkham, however, would  never return home after the fighting ended. From the AFS Bulletin 82, 18 February 1919:

Ensign Kimberly Stuart, U.S. Naval Aviation, formerly of Section 4 and sous-chef and chef of Section 10, writes at the end of last month from Hotel S. Marco, Ravenna, Italy, that Edward I. Tinkham, in the same branch as Ensign Stuart, is still very ill. Ensign Tinkham was member of Sections 3 and 4 and chief of the first T.M.U. No. 526, sent out from rue Raynouard in 1917.

From Tinkham’s biography in the AFS Friends of France:

Shortly after the armistice he was taken sick and was transferred to the Italian Military Hospital at Ravenna where he died of meningitis and pneumonia on March 30, 1919.

More details come from an Italian source:

Edward Tinkham died at 8:10 AM, Mar. 30th, 1919 at the Italian Military Hospital in Ravenna, Italy. His body was cremated and his ashes were placed in the Muro perpetuo at Ravenna.

These accounts agree on two facts: Tinkham was ill for a long time, maybe over four months, and he died of spinal meningitis and/or pneumonia. Nobody, especially in 1919, was afflicted with either meningitis or pneumonia for a long time, but no source has been found to explain what was going on.

The Italian source also reported that Tinkham’s father, Julian, was with him when he died and arranged the burial.

Edward's Name Inscribed on the American Volunteers Monument

After the end of hostilities, Tinkham and the other Porto Corsini bomber pilots were commended in a letter written by R. Adm. Frederick R. Harris, the chief of the Bureau of Yards and Docks (coincidentally also a Cornellian) after he reviewed the damage done by bombing to the Pola facilities.

The Navy had no decoration scheme until 4 February 1919 when P.L. 65-253 established the Navy Cross and the Distinguished Service Medal, retroactive to 5 April 1917. A medals board was convened in March 1919 to review all commendations, as well as new candidates, for consideration to receive these awards. The board ultimately recommended the award of 1,839 Navy Crosses to Navy and Marine personnel, and Tinkham was on the list. Due to the large number of awards at one time, the citations were brief:

The Navy Cross is awarded to Ensign Edward I. Tinkham, U.S. Navy (Reserve Forces), for distinguished and heroic service as a seaplane pilot in which capacity he made many flights for patrolling the sea and bombing the enemy coasts, showing at all times courage and a high spirit of duty.

Previously, in June 1917, the Cornell faculty, in an unprecedented act, had awarded Tinkham his BS degree, retroactive to the Commencement of 1916. Due in large part to Tinkham’s effort, 122 Cornellians served with the AFS. Only the Harvard, Yale, and Princeton contingents were larger.

Although the war put paid to romanticism, there were still some romantics left at Cornell. Professor A. B. Recknagel wrote this heroic Ode to Tinkham:

As the first song birds of returning Spring
Bring hope and vigor after Winter’s dearth
So Tinkham with his band of Cornell youths
An earnest was of great help to come
And of our country girding for the strife

Consumed as with a bright fierce flame
Of patriotic fervor, he is not dead
Whom once we knew and loved
He is translated, apotheosized
As One who also loved humanity.

After Edward’s death, Julian Tinkham sold his business interests and devoted himself wholeheartedly to promoting the League of Nations and the cause of peace. A diehard, he campaigned tirelessly for the U.S. to reconsider and join the League, frequently contributing what today we call op-ed pieces to the New York newspapers. He moved to his farm (another story) and turned his house at 509 Park St. in Montclair, NJ, into a venue for meetings and lectures. He redeveloped his 1.7 acres of grounds, and from 1924 to 1926 he opened them to the public as a "Peace Garden," where visitors could “enjoy tea in his garden amidst fountains and lily ponds with goldfish and other attractive features.” There were protests from the neighbors, lawsuits, and a city zoning violation action, which ultimately closed the place down. One of the fountains was "The Model for the League of Nations" by the noted Philadelphia sculptor A. Sterling Calder. After Julian’s death in 1940, this work was moved to Mountainside Hospital in Glen Ridge, NJ. In recent years the house was the residence of economist Paul Volcker, Federal Reserve Chairman from 1979 to 1987.

"League of Nations" Fountain Commissioned by Julian Tinkham

And the Tinkham mystique lived on for a while longer. On 23 May 1931, on the occasion of the dedication of the Cornell War Memorial, President Herbert Hoover said:

Fourteen years ago this morning a group of American boys carried an American flag into the fighting on the Aisne front, and thereby made a splendid gesture symbolic of the might of the New World mustering for the decisive issue. This unit was composed of undergraduates of Cornell and was under the leadership of Captain Edward Tinkham, a Cornell student in the class of 1916. It was a vanguard of a mighty army of American youth that flowed across the Atlantic in the months that followed.

For a number of years the Italian Navy base at Ravenna held an annual remembrance for Tinkham, and on the date of President Hoover’s address, the Italian Navy also honored Tinkham in a ceremony at the U.S. Embassy in Rome.

In addition to his Naval Air Service, Edward Tinkham was one of 19 men from the old AFS TMU 526 who died in the service. A total of 149 men who served with the AFS camions were lost. See the earlier accounts of his remarkable service in the Great War at these Roads to the Great War postings:

Part I: With the American Field Service

Part II: With TMU 526, of the AFS and the Rèservé Mallet

Part III: Difficult times in the Camion Service

Part IV: Training to be a Navy Pilot

Part V: Training to be a Navy Pilot

How did I first get interested in Edward Tinkham and his story? As an undergraduate at Cornell, I frequently walked past this plaque. And yes, I also know the stories of Mason and McCullough.

Sources: American Field Service, Congressional Record (Jan. 1920), Cornell University, Willis Haviland Lamm, Montclair Historical Society, Montclair Public Library, Seal and Serpent Society.


  1. A speculative thought but I wonder if he had contracted influenza during the great pandemic in late 1918 and never fully recovered, leaving himself vulnerable. A significant percentage of influenza victims died of pneumonia.

  2. Found this very interesting, and thank you for linking to your previous series about Edward Tinkham, which was much more than I have learned about him. I recently started a blog about WWI aviation, so I posted yesterday with a link to yours and included the only useful thing I have right now to add: Tinkham's obituary from the book Military Records of Cornell University in the World War.

  3. First flags are often confused, especially due to publicity. Witness the 'first' flag raised on Iwo Jima, now better know as Mt Suribachi, and EVEN who raised it. The important issue for me, is that we seek to correct history to better understand it, and not hold first drafts or POVs as infallible.