|"New York's Own"|
Two Stalwarts of the 77th Division in France
By Keith Muchowski
In late March we wrote of New York City’s Madison Square Victory Arch and the homecoming parade for the 27th Division. As spring 1919 proceeded there were similar parades in New York and across the nation for the ever-more arriving troops. It had been a busy six months for Rodman Wanamaker, chairman of New York City mayor John Hylan’s Committee of Welcome to Homecoming Troops, and his team of nearly 5000.
|Boarding the USS Agamemnon for the Journey Home, 29 April 1919|
From early December 1918 until late April 1919 over 300 ships carrying more than half a million men had arrived in New York Harbor. Nearly all of these returnees received some form of recognition and welcome. For some units this included formal parades. There were at least five full-scale processions, including spectacles for the Harlem Hellfighters in February, the 27th Division in March, and the 69th Infantry Regiment in April. As we noted, the 27th had a raucous, even tragic, welcome home on 25 March in which two parade watchers were trampled to death and almost three dozen injured. Officials had learned their lesson and were determined that when the 77th Division marched six weeks later there would be no repeat.
|Parade Ticket for 6 May 1919|
The 27th may have been the “New York Division,” comprised mainly of men from across the Empire State, but the 77th was “New York’s Own,” consisting of recruits primarily from within the five boroughs themselves. The unit was so dynamic that it had not one but two monikers: the “Liberty Division,” complete with a blue-and-gold Statue of Liberty insignia; and more colloquially the “Melting Pot Division,” in recognition of the “hyphenated-Americans” who made up such a large percentage of the men. Many in the ranks of the 77th were either immigrants or first-generation Americans whose parents were born in the old countries. These boys hailed from Little Italy, the Lower East Side, and other ethnic enclaves, where they grew up living in tenements, playing in the streets, and swimming in the East River. All told, over two dozen nationalities were represented within the Liberty Division.
It wasn’t just their backgrounds and many languages spoken that captured the public’s interest; the Liberty Division fought in some of the hardest-fought campaigns of the Great War, including in the Oise-Aisne and Meuse-Argonne Offensives. By Armistice Day nearly 2,000 were killed and four times that number wounded. The division included the Lost Battalion, the romanticized unit in which Major Charles W. Whittlesey and the 500-plus men under his command were trapped behind enemy lines, hunkered down under German fire, and separated from their own division, for five harrowing days.
|The 77th Division Passing Through the Madison Square Victory Arch|
After threat of inclement spring weather things cleared on the morning of Tuesday 6 May 1919 in time for the 27,000 men of the 77th Division to parade before a crowd estimated at two million. Not that all of the parade watchers got to see the procession. Fearing a re-occurrence of the the tragedies that marred 27th Division’s parade, police blocked off numerous sight lines and kept hundreds of thousands of viewers behind barriers, sometimes too far away even to glimpse the marchers as they wound their way from Washington Square Park up Fifth Avenue to 110th Street where Central Park ends. There were many complaints later but thankfully no repeat of the events of 25 March. Those who could see [through the crowd] witnessed the soldiers passing “in compact formation, one mass of men, following another, turning the great highway into a river running bank-full with olive drab and steel” as the New York Times described it in the next day’s edition.
In reference to the “melting pot” nature of the division the Times averred that the parade was a “Wonderful Demonstration of [the] War’s Americanization” and added further down that “These New York boys, though drawn from nearly every race on earth, made a dashing and magnificent picture.” The reporter singled out Sing Kee, “the highly Americanized Color Sergeant of the 308th Infantry,” for special praise. (See photo below.) Lau Sing Kee, as was his full name, was a Chinese-American and Californian who earned the Purple Heart, Distinguished Service Cross, and Croix de Guerre for his actions in the Argonne, where he remained at his post for three days despite being gassed and shelled intensely.
|The Divisional Color Guard|
The parade for the 77th Division in early May 1919 was the last large-scale Great War commemoration in New York City and signaled the end of a particular moment in the history of the conflict. By mid-spring most Doughboys were stateside and, if not officially discharged, then on the verge of mustering out. While all this was going on, negotiators in Paris were brokering the Versailles Treaty. Victors and vanquished signed the controversial agreement in the Palace’s Hall of Mirrors on 28 June, opening a new chapter in the war’s complicated legacy.
Keith Muchowski, an academic librarian, public historian, and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, recently completed a manuscript about Civil War Era New York City. He blogs at thestrawfoot.com.