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

Wednesday, March 10, 2021

The Rogers of Lowell: Supporting America's Veterans Through Three Wars


Disabled Sailor Carl Bronner Operating a Braille Machine

By Keith Muchowski

The USS J. Fred Talbott and the men aboard her were stationed in Trieste Italy in the months after the Armistice. One of the Talbott’s crewmen was Carl Bronner of Cincinnati. On 9 August 1919 he and over 40 other seamen attended a Y.M.C.A. function on land. Bronner and a friend were exploring the Italian seashore when the former saw something shiny on the ground and thinking he found a souvenir picked it up. It was an improvised explosive device. When the handmade grenade detonated in Bronner’s hands its blast killed his friend instantly; Bronner lost both of his hands and was rendered permanently blind. In the coming months the seaman had numerous surgeries at stateside naval hospitals; the day after his discharge in early June 1920 he began rehabilitation and training at the Red Cross Institute for the Blind in Baltimore. Known as Evergreen, the center offered medical services and vocational training to visually impaired American servicemen of the Great War. In that bucolic setting the physically and psychically scarred Carl Bronner learned braille and how to type on a special writing machine equipped with pedals and other attachments.

New Representative Edith Rogers Still in
Mourning After Her Husband's Death


Bronner became something of an inspiration to wounded Doughboys and others. In December 1921 he received a letter from President Warren G. Harding, who expressed his admiration for the young man still only in his early twenties. On 3 June 1926 Bronner and 1,000 other wounded veterans attended a White House garden fête hosted by President Calvin Coolidge and First Lady Grace Coolidge. Present too was Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts, serving in her dual capacity as a Red Cross Gray Lady. That same day Bronner attended a session at the U.S. Capitol Building, where from the House floor Representative Rogers spoke and told the story of the young man listening from the gallery. Rogers’s presence at both events was not accidental. The congresswoman from Massachusetts had been active in Red Cross and veterans affairs for nearly a decade. Edith Nourse Rogers was the widow and political successor of Congressman John Jacob Rogers. Largely forgotten today, the two represented Massachusettss Fifth District for nearly half a century from 1913 to 1960 and in that span created some of the most consequential and lasting legislation in American history. 

Representative John Jacob Rogers (Right) Showing Support
for Naval Aviation

John J. Rogers was a Harvard-educated attorney who married and began law in Lowell in 1907. John and bride Edith resided in that mill town, and soon he entered local politics, eventually joining the U.S. House as a freshman congressmen in March 1913. When the European war came the following summer he followed events closely. On 23 April 1917, two and a half weeks after Congress declared war on Germany, Rogers introduced a bill that would have restored American citizenship to the 40,000-50,000 young men who had surrendered their U.S. nationality to fight in the uniforms of the Allied and Associated Powers. Representative and Mrs. Rogers traveled to Europe during the Great War, where he toured as part of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on a fact-finding mission and she worked for the Y.M.C.A. and Red Cross. Visiting field units on the Continent, Ms. Rogers was appalled by the squalor and deprivation she saw. Stateside, she worked as a nurse at Walter Reed Hospital. Meanwhile, while still a member of Congress, her spouse enlisted in the 29th Training Battery, 10th Training Battalion, Field Artillery on 12 September 1918. John J. Rogers, like many Doughboys in training, apparently did not make it overseas before the Armistice came. Private Rogers was honorably discharged on 29 November 1918.

Congressman Rogers had the foresight to see the changes coming to the postwar world. In November 1919 he was emphasizing the coming significance of cable and wireless communication. He was also quick to see the shift in power dynamics from one side of the Atlantic to the other as the United States emerged stronger than ever on the world stage. Thus, in 1919 he advocated for a streamlining and restructuring of the cumbersome and unwieldy American diplomatic corps, split at the time between the Diplomatic and Consular Services. It took half a decade of wrangling but the Foreign Service Act—the Rogers Act—finally passed when President Coolidge signed the bill into law on 24 May 1924. It is for this reason that some call John Jacob Rogers “the Father of the Foreign Service.” Less than a year later he died after complications from appendicitis surgery at just 43.

His widow ran for his seat in the runoff election of 30 June 1925 and took her place in the House on 7 December. There she would remain until her death in September 1960. Like her husband, Edith Rogers was a Republican, which put her in good stead in 1920s Washington. Presidents Harding, Coolidge, and eventually Hoover entrusted the passionate Rogers with touring military hospitals across the United States and reporting the shortcomings she witnessed. As a member of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee in March 1928 she submitted a bill providing $15,000,000 for additional hospitals and other services to the Veterans’ Bureau. In 1932, perhaps surprisingly, she sided with President Hoover and voted against early payment of funds to the Bonus Army veterans who were then encamped in Washington, D.C. Throughout that decade she watched world events with increasing concern with a special focus on the plight of refugees.

By the time the United States entered the Second World War, Edith Nourse Rogers was a seasoned legislator. Congresswoman Rogers sponsored the creation of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps putting women in military uniform. Many were skeptical. One congressman declared the WAAC bill “most ridiculous” while another scoffed that it was “the silliest piece of legislation I have ever seen come into this House.” The WAACs—or WACs as they were known by the war’s end—made considerable contributions to the Allied war effort. Like Franklin D. Roosevelt—who had graduated with her late husband in the Harvard Class of 1904—Edith Nourse Rogers understood the mistakes that Washington had made after the First World War. Carl Bronner had been one of the fortunate Great War veterans in terms of the medical care and vocational training he received upon his discharge. Knowing there would be many more Bronners in similar need after the current conflict, she drafted and helped pass the Servicemen's Readjustment Act of 1944—the G.I. Bill.

Representative Edith Rogers in Her Nurses Uniform
Addressing a Group of WAACs in 1943 

Edith Nourse Rogers served in Congress until her death on 10 September 1960 in the waning months of the Eisenhower administration. She and John rest today in Lowell Cemetery.

Keith Muchowski, a librarian and professor at New York City College of Technology (CUNY) in Brooklyn, blogs at He is working on a history of Civil War Era New York City.

1 comment:

  1. Fine good people these Rogers', who was it that said Republicans are "deplorables"? Speaking of deplorables, that Trieste would have IEDs laying in the streets for the curious to just pick up is disgustingly heinous. Another example of "the ends justify the means"? And sadly we here in America, the bastion of free thinking and speech, today are seeing "the ends justify the means" in the good old USA.