The Search for Roman Catholic High School’s Alumni of World War I 

By Chris Gibbons
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

 It was December of 2019 when I first came upon the letter from 28th Division Captain Ralph C. Crow to Mrs. Ellen Breen of Philadelphia. Like so many of the letters that I’ve discovered during my now 10-year search for the alumni of Roman Catholic High School who gave their lives in World War I, it was heartbreaking. However, this letter was different, and I was astonished as I read it for it revealed a surprising and unexpected connection related to my search.

Captain Ralph C. Crows letter to Mrs. Ellen BreenCaptain Ralph C. Crows letter to Mrs. Ellen BreenEllen Breen’s son, Bernard, was a sergeant in Crow’s Company A - 108th Machine Gun Battalion in the opening days of the great Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the largest and deadliest battle ever fought by American soldiers. The letter read in part: “…I was ordered to send two guns to report to a Battalion (sic) when the fight started, I selected Sergeant Bernard F. Breen, and his gun crew for the reason that I considered him the best man in my Company…On the morning of September 28th, one of the men who had been with Sergeant Breen reported to me that the section had all been shot up, that Sergeant Breen and another man had been killed…”

The letter went on to state that one of the soldiers informed Captain Crow that they searched for, and eventually found, a “Father Wolf (sic)” to perform Breen’s burial service. A subsequent search of World War I records indicates that the only chaplain that could have been was the highly decorated 28th Division Lieutenant Reverend Joseph L. N. Wolfe. Crowe wrote: “I later got a chance to talk to Father Wolf (sic) and he told me himself that he had visited the grave of Sergeant Breen, and had performed the burial service…the men of my Company felt that they had lost a true Comrade when he was killed, as I said in the beginning of this letter it is with sorrow that I write this, as I had learned to love Sergeant Breen for the many brave deeds he (had) done on the field of battle.”

On September 27th, 1918, during the great Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Joseph Wolfe from Roman Catholic High School’s Class of 1899 performed the burial service of Bernard Breen from Roman’s Class of 1902. I couldn’t help but wonder if they had known each other.

It was another remarkable moment of discovery for me, one of many I’ve had over these last several years. It was also another reminder that what I had initially and naively assumed would be a relatively straightforward search for names had instead become an incredible revelation of stories.

“I resolved to find what remained of Company D for (my grandfather), and for (his fellow soldiers), and for myself, as well, and complete a story begun on a hot July day so long ago, when young men raced across open fields toward machine guns and disappeared into history.” (From “The Remains of Company D – A Story of the Great War” by James Carl Nelson)

As an avid military history buff, I had always been intrigued by World War I. When I was just 12 years old, I worked on Saturdays at a local Gun Club as a ‘trap-boy’ - putting the clay pigeons on the machine that would fling them out of the trap-bunker. There was an old man who also worked there that everyone called “Gunner”. I never knew his real name, but was told that he was a veteran of World War I. I remember that Gunner was missing the tops of a few of his fingers after the first knuckle and often wondered if it was an injury sustained in the war. Whenever he clutched his ever-present lit cigar with those finger-stubs, I wanted to ask him what happened, but never did. I now wish that I had. Additionally, my father, a Korean War veteran, occasionally recounted particularly disturbing memories from his childhood of disabled Great War veterans begging for money on the streets of Philadelphia during the Great Depression.

In the late 1990’s, my then 84-year-old next-door neighbor, Murray, fascinated me with his childhood recollections of attending the May 1919 parade held in Philadelphia for the returning 28th Division soldiers.

Consequently, when my freelance writing career began in 2004 many of my initial published essays focused on war veterans, and several chronicled the exploits of the doughboys of the Great War. However, it was while reading James Carl Nelson’s The Remains of Company D – A Story of the Great War in 2011, particularly the passage above, that I committed myself to finding the names of the alumni of my high school alma mater who gave their lives in World War I.

Philadelphias Roman Catholic High School circa 1900Philadelphias Roman Catholic High School circa 1900Philadelphia’s Roman Catholic High School is the oldest Diocesan high school in the United States, as well as the nation’s first free Catholic high school. The school’s founder, Thomas E. Cahill, amassed a fortune from his coal and ice businesses, and when he died in 1878 he left the bulk of his estate for the establishment of the school as specified in his will. His wife, Sophia, and the initial members of the Board of Trustees, a few of them Civil War veterans, saw to it that Cahill’s dream would come to fruition and, in September of 1890, “Catholic High”, as it was commonly known, first opened the doors of its grand Gothic building at Broad and Vine streets. Students and alumni are known as “Cahillites” and the school has become a veritable institution in Philadelphia that continues to thrive to this day.

WW 2 Memorial Plaque at Roman Catholic High SchoolWW 2 Memorial Plaque at Roman Catholic High SchoolWhile walking the halls of Roman as a student in the late 1970’s, I would often glance up at the memorial plaques hanging on a first-floor wall that listed the names of the 121 Roman alumni who gave their lives in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. The largest of those plaques, by far, is the bronze World War II plaque listing 108 names. It was dedicated by the Alumni Association in 1947, and the guest speaker at the dedication ceremony was Federal Judge James P. McGranery, a World War I veteran from Roman’s Class of 1913. McGranery would later serve as a Pennsylvania Congressman and Attorney General under President Harry Truman.

I wondered why there was no commemorative plaque for the Roman alumni who gave their lives in World War I and simply assumed it was because no alumni had died in the Great War. Surely, I reassured myself, that must be the case, otherwise a plaque would have been dedicated by our Alumni Association a long time ago.

In the years following my graduation in 1979, I tried to remain active in Roman’s Alumni Association and often attended the Association’s quarterly meetings held at the school. Prior to these meetings, I would occasionally walk the storied halls of the old building and stop to glance up at the memorial plaques. I once wrote down the names from the Korean War plaque for my father, a Korean War veteran and Roman graduate from the class of 1948. He told me that there were some names missing. “Believe me”, he said, “I know guys who were killed in Korea – Roman guys – and they’re not on there.” He wrote down their names for me and because my Dad’s mind and memory were always razor-sharp, I wasn’t surprised to later confirm that he was right. But this finding also puzzled me: Why were these names not listed on Roman’s Korean War memorial plaque? Was it simply a matter of the school and the alumni not being informed by their next of kin? Could the same thing have happened to the Roman alumni who gave their lives in World War I?

As my interest and knowledge of the Great War deepened over the years, particularly its impact on the Philadelphia region, these visits to the school gradually amplified my suspicions that it was highly unlikely that Roman alumni did not die in the war. Nelson’s book not only inspired me to confirm this but, if true, to also try and determine why the saga of Roman’s alumni of World War I had become lost and forgotten in the fog of time and the torn pages of history.

Philadelphia and the Great War

Philadelphia Home Defense Reserve troops parade at Broad and Arch StreetsPhiladelphia Home Defense Reserve troops parade at Broad and Arch Streets, just three blocks from Roman Catholic High School (Photo from “Philadelphia in the World War”) When the Great War started in August 1914, the United States was determined to remain neutral. However, as the war progressed, public sentiment gradually favored England and France (the Allied Powers), particularly after a German submarine torpedoed and sank the British ocean liner Lusitania on May 7, 1915, killing 128 Americans, 27 of whom were Philadelphians. During this period of neutrality, massive amounts of materials and goods supporting the Allied Powers war efforts were manufactured and shipped from the United States. Philadelphia, then the 3rd largest city in the country with a population of just over 1.5 million people, was a major manufacturing, trade, and shipping hub, and the war was a boon for the region’s industries as chronicled by historian Jacob Downs in The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia – World War I:

“War created a significant boost to the region’s industries, which produced clothing, ammunition, weapons, and war machines for the U.S. military and the Allies. Even before U.S. entry into the conflict on April 6, 1917, the war helped to reinvigorate the region’s textile industry, which had been suffering in the early twentieth century. For example, the Dobson’s Mills, located in Kensington, Manayunk, and Germantown, filled an order for 100,000 blankets to the French army in the first year of the war, while the Roxford Knitting Mill in Kensington filled a similar-sized order for underwear. Area shipyards expanded, producing 328 ships during the war years. The New York Shipbuilding Corporation in South Camden and the Pusey and Jones Shipbuilding Corporation in Gloucester City became major contributors to the war effort. The war also vastly expanded the Camden Forge, a major supplier for the shipyards. The Baldwin Locomotive Works manufactured artillery shells and other munitions. Seventy-five percent of the military’s boots and shoes came from Philadelphia tanners.”

After the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Philadelphia lived up to its new nickname – “Workshop of the World” – as it became one of the key cities crucial to sustaining America’s war efforts. Philadelphia industries not only manufactured munitions, helmets, clothing, and various other supplies for the military, but hundreds of battleships, destroyers, and transport vessels were produced at the city’s Hog Island, Delaware River, and Naval Shipyards. Together, these facilities formed the largest ship building complex in the world at the time.

Thousands of men and women from the Philadelphia area enlisted in the armed services following the war declaration. As noted in the 1922 publication, Philadelphia in the World War: 1914-1919 by the Philadelphia War History Committee, at least 90,000 Philadelphians joined some branch of the Army, Navy, or Marine Corps during the war, with approximately 60,000 men from the Philadelphia area serving overseas, primarily in the 28th and 79th Divisions. Of the nearly 2,000 Philadelphians (some later estimates placed it closer to 3,000) who died while in service, approximately 1,000 were Catholics from the Philadelphia Archdiocese.

With this data serving as my background knowledge, and Nelson’s book providing inspiration, I was certain that my search would confirm my belief that Roman alumni did indeed give their lives in World War I. I even thought it was likely that a dust-covered bronze memorial plaque with the names that I sought was probably sitting in some forgotten corner of the school’s Annex building where the records were stored. But what I never anticipated were the remarkable stories this quest would uncover.

The Search and its Discoveries 

In the autumn of 2011, with the enthusiastic assistance of Roman’s resident historian, Ed Keenan from the Class of 1954, the search for Roman’s so called “lost boys” of World War I began.

Ed and I sorted through the school’s voluminous documents and discovered a passage from the Alumni section of the 1919 yearbook that read: “Some fourteen of our Alumni, former students of Catholic High, have made the supreme sacrifice and laid down their lives on the fields of France for their country.” Although initially pleased that my suspicions had been confirmed, I was disappointed that the names of these fourteen former students were not listed. Further examination of other yearbooks as well as old newspaper articles only revealed the names of three of these alumni – Edward Kelley from the Class of 1908, Raymond Hummel from the Class of 1911, and Louis McGinnis from the Class of 1913. Additionally, in response to a 2012 Op-Ed piece that I wrote for the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding my search a reader informed me via e-mail that his uncle, Richard Currie from the Class of 1911, also died in the war. Follow-up research confirmed this.

By mid-2012, eight months into the search, the first four names were known.

3 articles groupedJune 1919 RCHS Yearbook passage (left); Nov. 1917 Catholic Standard & Times (center); Aug. 20, 1918 Philadelphia Public Ledger (right) 

 Nov. 16 1918 Philadelphia Public LedgerNov. 16 1918 Philadelphia Public Ledger

Thanks to the efforts of Patrick Conville from Roman’s Class of 1976, spreadsheets listing the names of the Roman graduates from 1894 through 1918 were compiled and then compared to a list of Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians who died while in service during the war. Any matches were then subsequently researched for verification which resulted in the confirmation of two more alumni: John Gerngross from the Class of 1909 and James Feely from the Class of 1906.

Gerngross and FeelyPhoto of John Gerngross and the Jan. 28, 1922 Phila. Public Ledger noting the return of his body (left); article on James Feely in the Catholic Standard & Times, Oct. 1918.

While hopes for a quick resolution were momentarily buoyed by these finds, it was also in compiling these spreadsheets of Roman graduates that a major issue severely hampering the search became apparent. The records of the names of the graduates from 1894 through 1918 are readily available from the school records, sorted by graduation year, with the names of these graduates listed in alphabetical order. With an average number of about 59 graduates per year for that time period, it was a tedious, yet ultimately manageable task to compile a complete list of these graduates for comparison purposes.

However, the search is not just limited to the school’s graduates, but it encompasses the entire alumni – all former students of the school. During that era, it was extremely common for students to attend high school for 1 to 3 years before joining the work force. Indeed, it is estimated that only about 25% of Roman students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries stayed at the school from freshman through senior year to receive their diplomas.

Unfortunately, the issue arose due to the fact that the records of all Roman alumni who ever attended the school – which includes crucial data such as address, birth date, mother’s name, and father’s name - not only number in the tens of thousands, but are maintained on outdated microfiche film in alphabetical order by student last name, and not by class year. While I would certainly use these records, and continue to do so, for ultimate verification of a potential find, it was nearly impossible to manually update a spreadsheet with the key information that would have enabled quick comparisons against the list of Philadelphians and Pennsylvanians who died in the Great War.

Gang 1Consequently, the next phase of the search consisted of extensive reviews of numerous Philadelphia newspapers from that era as well as visiting old Philadelphia Catholic Churches that still had WW I commemorative plaques listing the names of parishoners who gave their lives in the war. Additionally, tips received from individuals who heard about the search led to the discovery of two names.

• Newspapers – Current technology enables me to electronically search digitally archived newspapers utilizing key words or phrases, while also narrowing the search to a particular time period. This has been crucial in not only the discovery of the Roman alumni who served and died in the war, but also those who were wounded as well. The additional names of Roman alumni that have been discovered from these newspapers are listed below:

  • Joseph D. Waples – Class of 1914 (thanks to the efforts of Steve Johnston, Class of 2010)
  • Walter J. Spearing – Class of 1909
  • Joseph F. Murray – Class of 190
  • John J. Boyle – Class of 1914 
  • James W.Callahan – Class of 1918
  • Bernard F. Breen – Class of 1902
  • Daniel P. Lafferty – Class of 1916
  • Michael R. Leonard – Class of 1910
  • John F. Owens – Class of 1908 (died in 1922 from wounds sustained during the war)

Assorted newspaper articles that I’ve gathered from the search identifying Roman alumni who were killed in action are shown at right.

• Names listed on WW I Commemorative Plaques at old Philadelphia Catholic Churches – When I informed my father of the difficulties I was encountering in the early days of my search, he suggested checking the names listed on the large WW I memorial plaque in the vestibule of St. Columba Church, his parish as a youth that dates back to 1895. The Catholic boys from this North Philadelphia parish, now known as St. Martin de Porres, have a long-standing tradition of attending Roman and my father thought it was likely that some of those parishoners who gave their lives in World War I also attended Roman. Dad turned out to be right as this led to the discovery of another name - Francis T. Schommer from the Class of 1914. This, in turn, led me to checking the names from several other old Catholic church commemorative WW I plaques: St. John the Evangelist, St. Patrick’s, Visitation B.V.M., St. Vincent DePaul, St. John the Baptist, St. Bridget’s, Corpus Christi, St. Michael’s, and St. Bartholemew’s. While these searches did not reveal any new names, a few of these plaques did list names that were previously discovered. 

 left Francis T. Schommer in uniform right St. Columba Church now known as St. Martin DePorres and its large 4 x 6 WW I Memorial PlaqueFrancis T. Schommer in uniform (left); St. Columba Church (now known as St. Martin DePorres) and its large 4 x 6 WW I Memorial Plaque.

• Tips from those who have heard of the search – I was fortunate to have had several of my Op-Ed essays chronicling this search published in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Consequently, there were many people who were not only aware of it, but also provided information that led to the confirmation of two additional Roman alumni who died in World War I:

  • Peter J. Conway – Class of 1910: His great niece contacted me via e-mail and wasn’t sure if he attended Roman, but thought that it was likely based on family history. Roman’s records confirmed that Conway was an alumnus.
  • Walter J. Wiegand – Class of 1915: A researcher who checked the Roman digital archives maintained on Villanova University’s Falvey Memorial Library – Digital Library contacted me via e-mail after finding a Roman document dating back to 1940 that was written by Paul Jones from the Class of 1915. Jones, then a columnist for the Philadelphia Bulletin, reminisced about his graduation year at Roman in the document and revealed the following: “…Walt Wiegand, another classmate, would die three years later in a tank attack on the plains between Amiens and St. Quentin.” Again, a review of newspaper articles as well as Roman’s records confirmed that Wiegand was an alumnus.

 Wiegand Conway GangPhiladelphia Record – 1918 (left); Catholic Standard & Times – 1918 (center); Philadelphia Press – 1918 (right).

The Wounded 

Joseph Collins handwritten account of his leg amputation croppedOne of the more surprising results of the search has been the discovery of numerous Roman alumni who were wounded in the Great War. Initially these discoveries were unexpectedly made while looking over various newspaper articles in a search for the Roman alumni who were killed in action.

However, another method that I used that also resulted in discovering the wounded was taking the list of Roman graduates and then searching the military records on Ancestry.com in the hopes of finding information that would be helpful in my search.

Just based upon the number of wounded I’ve found somewhat accidentally, as well as in relatively cursory attempts, I’ve concluded that it’s likely that a few hundred Roman alumni were wounded in World War I.

A particularly interesting finding regarding the wounded was the story of Joseph P. Collins from the Class of 1912. He served as a Corporal in Company B of the 145th Infantry Regiment of the famed 28th Division.

Using Ancestry.com, I discovered the account he wrote of the early days of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive when he was wounded, a portion of which states: “…advanced to Toul Sector, then to St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne fight starting 9/25/18 here on this front I was 4 days out during time capturing about 30 prisoners and killing about 10, then on the morning of the 29th Sept. I was hit with a German 77 on the left ankle bone, some striking me before it struck the ground then piecing off same shell shot down the field about 100 yards killing several other boys. Then I was carried back to the 1st Aid Station for treatment where I laid under Jerry’s fire for 10 hrs. Afterward I was moved for 60 hrs until I received special attention, then on Oct 1, 1918 my leg was amputated….”

Below are an assortment of newspaper articles and Pennsylvania Veteran’s Compensation Application records found of the Roman alumni who were wounded in battle (all were confirmed to be alumni):

Wounded gang 1 

Wounded 7 

A Search for Names Becomes a Revelation of Stories

Among the most surprising and gratifying aspects of the search thus far has been the discovery of long forgotten exploits of some of the Roman alumni who served in the Great War. What I had naively assumed would be a simple search for names has instead become a remarkable revelation of stories, not only of those who gave their lives, but those who survived as well.

I’ve compiled quite a few of these stories during my research, but space limitations preclude me from summarizing all of them in this article. What follows are some of the more noteworthy among them:

Edward J. Kelley – Class of 1908: Kelley was not only the first Roman alumnus to give his life in the Great War, but he was also among the first Americans to die as well. He joined the American Ambulance Field Service in 1916, some 8 months before the U.S. even entered the war. On September 23, 1916, during the Battle of Verdun, while helping to transport wounded French soldiers, Kelley was killed when an ambulance he was in was hit by German shrapnel fire. He was held in such high regard by the French Army that they gave Kelley a full military funeral as well as posthumously awarding him the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery. Kelley’s family read my 2014 story about him in the Philadelphia Inquirer and sent me a photo of a letter signed by all of the French soldiers who attended his funeral, as well as a photo of a French soldier standing at his gravesite.

Edward J. Kelley gangPhiladelphia Public Ledger 9-25-16 (left); Letter to the Kelley family from the French soldiers at his funeral (center); French soldier at Kelley’s gravesite (right).

Vincent Diodati – Class of 1906: After graduating from Roman, Diodati earned his medical degree from Jefferson Medical College and practiced medicine in Philadelphia. He enlisted in the Army the day the U.S. declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917 and was quickly commissioned a lieutenant. Because the British were in dire need of battlefield surgeons, he was immediately assigned to British forces before any U.S. troops even entered the battlefield. During his entire time in Europe he was under constant fire. In the battles that his unit was involved in, Diodati was wounded three times and gassed twice. At one point, he was severely wounded but refused to leave the field hospital because he wanted to continue to tend to the wounded Allied soldiers. Of his original outfit of 220 men, Diodati was one of only 14 survivors. For his gallantry, Diodati was promoted to Major and received the coveted British Military Cross which was personally presented to him by King George of England. Following the war, Diodati resumed practicing medicine in Philadelphia and was a member of the American Medical Association. He died in 1970 at the age of 81. Upon reading my story about Diodati in the Philadelphia Inquirer, his niece contacted me and sent a photo of his British Military Cross that she inherited. 

 Vincent Diodati gangPhiladelphia Public Ledger 3-28-19; Dr. Vincent Diodati – circa 1960’s (center); Diodati’s British Military Cross (right).

Joseph L. N. Wolfe – Class of 1899: After graduating from Roman, Wolfe was ordained a priest in 1906, serving in the Philadelphia Archdiocese. He enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of World War I and was among an incredible 16 Roman alumni who served as priest-chaplains during the war. Wolfe served in the 110th Infantry Regiment and 55th Infantry Brigade of Pennsylvania’s 28th Division. He participated in some of the bloodiest fighting of the war as his division fought in nearly every major U.S. Army engagement, including the great Battle of the Meuse-Argonne. Wolfe consistently put himself in harm’s way as he tended to the wounded soldiers on the battlefield, and also administered last rites to dying soldiers during battle. For his courage and bravery, Wolfe was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, and 2 Silver Star Citations. He went on to become National Chaplain of the American Legion and also served as a pastor in the West Philadelphia parishes of Saint Barbara’s and Saint Gregory’s. He died in 1949 at the age of 67. 

Joseph L. N. Wolfe gangReverend Lieutenant Joseph L. N. Wolfe (left); Philadelphia Public Ledger 9-28-18; Philadelphia Public Ledger 6-17-19 (right). 

John W. Friel – Class of 1910: Following graduation, Friel attended the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He served as a corporal in the 37th Division’s 145th Infantry Regiment. During World War I’s great Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, on Nov. 2, 1918, in full view of the enemy and under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire, Friel and two fellow soldiers swam across the Escaut/Scheldt River to complete the construction of a crucial footbridge. The other two soldiers with Friel were killed during the action. Friel managed to make it to the other side and completed the footbridge which enabled American troops to cross the river during the battle. For his actions, Friel was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star, the Croix de Guerre with 2 palms from France, the Croix de Guerre from Belgium, and the Purple Heart. Following the war, Friel worked for the Standard Press Steel Company for 42 years, retiring as Executive Vice President. In 1963, Friel was named National Commander of the Legion of Valor, an organization that dates to the Civil War for military personnel who have been awarded either the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, or the Navy Cross. Friel was honored in a White House ceremony by President Lyndon Johnson. He died in 1970, and his legacy was so revered that his obituary was printed in the New York Times.

John Friel gang(Left) John Friel (at right in photo awards Legion of Valor to John Geoghegan – circa 1960; Friel’s grave in Queenstown, Maryland (right). 

John F. Owens – Class of 1908: Owens enlisted in the Army in 1916 and served at the Mexican border. At the outbreak of World War I, he served in the 109th Infantry Regiment of the 28th Division. He participated in five major battles, including Fismette and Chateau-Thierry. At Chateau-Thierry he was severely wounded with a machine gun wound to his hip. This injury necessitated several operations both during and after the war, and, in 1922, four years after the war ended, Owens died from those wounds. However, on March 13, 1930, Owens was posthumously awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action during the Battle of Fismette. The Army citation reads as follows: “Pvt. Owens was a member of a detachment consisting of two automatic rifle squads that was holding a position north of the bridgehead in the town of Fismette. During the severe enemy artillery bombardment of their position the members of the detachment were buried under falling buildings on three different occasions, but each time they were able to rescue one another, salvage their guns and continue to hold the position.” 

John F. Owens gangJohn F. Owens – circa 1917 (left); Philadelphia Public Ledger 2-14-22 (center); Owens’ Silver Star Citation (right). 

John T. McFall – Class of 1917: McFall served as a private in the 5th Regiment of the 2nd Marine Division. In June 1918, McFall’s regiment fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood. The battle is now legendary in Marine lore and noted for the tenacious hand-to-hand fighting that ensued and the heavy casualties sustained by both sides. U.S. forces suffered 9,777 casualties, including 1,811 killed. At least one Roman alumnus, Walter J. Spearing from the Class of 1909, was killed in the fighting. McFall was awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery. He died in 1941. 

John T. McFall gangCatholic Standard & Times, July 1918 (listed incorrect middle initial) (left); the French Croix de Guerre medal for bravery (center); McFall’s grave at Miami City Cemetery (right).

William J. Armstrong – Class of 1912: While at Roman, Armstrong was Captain of the football team. During World War I he served as a First Lieutenant and fighter pilot in the 17th United States Aero Squadron. In July of 1918 Armstrong was cited by the British for bringing down an enemy aircraft, and on August 11, 1918, during a dog-fight in which Armstrong was engaged against 4 German fighter planes, he reportedly shot down one, and possibly two, enemy planes. He was severely injured during the engagement but still managed to land his plane. The incident made headline news in the Philadelphia newspapers. In 1934, Armstrong was a founding member of the Order of Daedalians, formed by a representative group of American World War I pilots to perpetuate the spirit of patriotism and love of country that advocated for air and space power to ensure American preeminence as well as foster an esprit de corps in the military air forces. The Daedalians are still active today.

William J. Armstrong gangPhiladelphia Public Ledger 10-1-18 (left); Philadelphia Press 9-30-18 (center); Armstrong writes of his wartime experiences (right).

 John F. McCloskey – Class of 1896: Following graduation from Roman, McCloskey served in the U.S. Army’s Battery “A” of the Pennsylvania Volunteers during the Puerto Rican Campaign of the Spanish-American War in 1898. After the war, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania and was named an All-American football player. He graduated from Penn’s Medical School in 1901. McCloskey co-founded Chestnut Hill Hospital in Philadelphia in 1904. In 1915, before the United States formally entered World War 1, McCloskey volunteered to help the French Army and served in the famed American Ambulance Corp. When the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, he then served in the U.S. Army Medical Corps with the 42nd Division, attaining the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. McCloskey became an expert surgeon in facial reconstruction for soldiers inflicted with severe facial wounds suffered in battle. He later went on to become a prominent Philadelphia physician, a clinical professor of surgery at Woman’s Medical College, and Register of Wills for the city of Philadelphia. After nearly 50 years of service at Chestnut Hill Hospital, McCloskey died in 1951. There is a grammar school named after him in the Mt. Airy section of Philadelphia.

John F. McCloskey gangDr. John F. McCloskey – 1950 (left); Philadelphia Inquirer 3-20-41 (center); John F. McCloskey Public School – Philadelphia (right). 

 Another interesting aspect of the search has been the rediscovery of Roman alumni with ties to World War I who would later distinguish themselves in their careers. Some of the more noteworthy are summarized below:

  • James P. McGranery – Class of 1914: McGranery served in World War I with the 111th Infantry Division as a Balloon Observation pilot. He would go on to become a Federal Judge and U.S. Congressman and was appointed as Attorney General under President Harry Truman in 1952.
  • Tommy Loughran – Class of 1920: While a sophomore at Roman in 1917, Loughran, eager to fight for his country, lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. Just prior to shipping out overseas, military authorities discovered the 15-year old’s true age and sent him home. He would later go on to become one of the greatest light-heavyweight champions in boxing history, eventually inducted into both the Boxing Hall of Fame and the Marine Sports Hall of Fame (Loughran served in WW II).
  • Vincent A. Carroll – Class of 1909: One of the most prominent Philadelphians of his era, Carroll served as a Captain in the 79th Division’s Artillery Field Battalion in WW I. His unit was involved in heavy fighting in the battles of St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne. Carroll received an Army citation for gallantry in battle and was promoted to Major. Following the war, Carroll continued to practice law in Philadelphia, then served as Assistant District Attorney and a Judge in the Court of Common Pleas. He was eventually chosen by his fellow judges as the first President Judge of the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas. Carroll is also the founder of the modern St. Patrick’s Day parade in Philadelphia.
  • Peter Guilday – Class of 1901: Guilday, the founder of the American Catholic Historical Association, was ordained a priest following graduation from Roman and later tried to enlist in the Army at the outbreak of the war but was denied due to poor eyesight. However, as one of the most prominent Church historians and authors, Guilday would later be named as Secretary of the historic records of the National Catholic War Council, and he would also chronicle the history of Catholics in World War I.
  • William F. Dalton – Class of 1904: Dalton served as an Army Infantry Captain in the 154th Depot Brigade during World War I, though not overseas until 1919. He also served as a Lieutenant Colonel in World War II and was captured by the Japanese when the Philippines fell in 1942. Dalton was held as a POW until 1945 when he was liberated by Russian troops in Manchuria, and he was awarded the Silver Star for bravery.

The Status of the Search

During the first 3 years of the search for the Roman alumni who gave their lives in the Great War, the working assumption, based upon the 1919 Yearbook passage, was that a total of 14 alumni had died. However, in 2014, I was stunned to discover newspaper articles referencing a December 28, 1919, Memorial Mass that was held at the school “to honor the memory of the 32 former students who died in the war…” Additionally, another crucial piece of information was gleaned from these articles as, apparently, the total number of alumni who served was listed as 1,500. Not only did these new revelations take me by complete surprise, but I was again frustrated that the names of these deceased 32 alumni were not provided in the articles. However, I now believe that a brochure or a pamphlet was likely handed out at this Memorial Mass that did list these names. I’m convinced that in the attic of an old Philadelphia rowhome are the long-forgotten belongings of someone who attended the Mass and kept that pamphlet - perhaps a relative of one of the dead soldiers. Finding it is now my “Holy Grail.”

Status gang 1Philadelphia Record 12-29-19 (left); Philadelphia Public Ledger 12-29-19 (right).

Since that time, I have subsequently discovered that at least two additional alumni, John F. Owens from the Class of 1908 and William H. Barrow from the Class of 1913, died in 1922 of wounds sustained in battle during the war, thus raising the total now to 34.

One of the most puzzling and frustrating mysteries surrounding this search has been trying to find the reason why Roman did not have a memorial plaque to honor its fallen alumni of World War I. It has perplexed all the alumni, both young and old, who I’ve spoken to. The mystery only deepened with the discovery of early 1919 newspaper articles stating that Roman’s Alumni Association named a memorial committee whose planning would eventually culminate in the unveiling of a bronze tablet at the school that honored the “martyrs to nation.”

In December of 1919, the Alumni Association again publicly stated that it still planned to move forward with a memorial but hadn’t yet decided what “form it would take.” My search for additional news following this last pronouncement has come up empty and it is unknown as to what eventually became of those plans. Was there once a memorial or a plaque to honor the Roman alumni of World War I? If so, what happened to it, and if not, why? To those who are unfamiliar with the fierce loyalty that the Roman alumni have always had for their school, this mystery may seem trivial. But our motto is “Brothers for Life”, and these ideals have been largely embraced by, and passed down to, each subsequent class since 1894. This unyielding allegiance was never more evident than in the 1980’s when the alumni fought against, and prevented, the Philadelphia Archdiocese’s plans to close the school. So, the idea that the Alumni Association’s publicly announced plans for this memorial were somehow scrapped and forgotten is almost unimaginable for most of us to accept. For me, the resolution of this mystery is just as vital as finding the names of the fallen.

Status gang 1Catholic Standard & Times 1-4-19 (left); Catholic Standard & Times 2-7-19 (right).

At Roman Catholic High School’s annual Veteran’s Day Assembly in 2013, a new World War I Memorial plaque commissioned by the Alumni Association was unveiled. It was designed to only list 14 alumni names, so shortly after the discovery that it was actually 32 alumni, and possibly more, who had given their lives, another plaque for these additional names was approved. Together, both plaques can hold a total of 36 names if necessary. They are pictured here with the 19 names discovered thus far and are now hanging next to the World War II memorial plaque in the first-floor hall at Roman.

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A relatively recent discovery has now raised my hopes for finding most, if not all, of the remaining names. With the help of John Corrigan, history teacher and Chairman of Roman Catholic High School’s Social Studies Department, I was provided a copy of a pamphlet that was distributed at a May 30, 1919, Memorial Mass for Philadelphia’s Catholic war dead. It was held in Philadelphia’s massive Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, just a few blocks from Roman Catholic High School. The pamphlet lists 619 names of the known Catholic soldiers and sailors who died during the Great War and also provides their address, military unit, how they died, when, and their home parish. While it is certainly not a complete list of all those Philadelphia Catholics who died, it does narrow my search enough to make it a bit more manageable. It is now just a matter of setting aside some time and manually checking each name against Roman’s microfiche records. The first pages of the pamphlet are shown below.

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In closing, perhaps the most poignant discovery I have made thus far is the story of John Jenkins from the Class of 1912. He was the Class Vice President and Editor of Roman’s monthly journal and yearbook, the Purple and Gold. While conducting a search on Ancestry.com of the records that may be available for the Roman graduates from the Class of 1912, I discovered that Jenkins enlisted in the Army just one month after the U.S. had declared war on Germany. He served in the 79th, 29th, and 28th Divisions eventually attaining the rank of 1st lieutenant. On his Pennsylvania Veterans Compensation Application he listed his “Engagements” (battles he fought in) as St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, two of the bloodiest battles of the war with the Meuse-Argonne now having the distinction of being the largest and deadliest battle ever fought by U.S. soldiers. I could only imagine what Jenkins must have experienced.

I continued to browse his records and learned that he was a real estate salesman and that he and his wife, Lola, never had any children. As I continued to search, I then found that he died in 1941, at the young age of 46. On his Pennsylvania Certificate of Death, the coroner stated that the cause of death was “Suicide by carbon monoxide gas as he sat in an automobile with hose connected to the exhaust pipe.” Other contributory causes were also listed: “Mental depression & alcohol addiction.”

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I sat staring at my computer screen, repeatedly reading the Death Certificate over and over. I then went back to read his Veterans Compensation Application. Next to “Wounds or other injuries received”, Jenkins wrote: “None.” However, I don’t believe this is true. Although John Jenkins had no wounds from the Great War that could be seen, it certainly didn’t mean that he had none. While I cannot say for sure that his experiences during the war were the cause of his mental depression, it would be negligent to believe that he was not deeply scarred by St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne.

I’m now convinced that the Great War killed John Jenkins as surely as it killed our other alumni, and although I have yet to find all the Cahillites who gave their lives, I believe it’s likely that I’ve already found Roman Catholic High School’s final casualty of World War I.

The Young Dead Soldiers Do Not Speak

Nevertheless they are heard in the still houses: who has not heard them?
They have a silence that speaks for them at night and when the clock counts.
They say, We were young. We have died. Remember us.
They say, We have done what we could but until it is finished it is not done.
They say, We have given our lives but until it is finished no one can know what our lives gave.
They say, Our deaths are not ours: they are yours: they will mean what you make them.
They say, Whether our lives and our deaths were for peace and a new hope or for nothing we cannot say: it is you who must say this.
They say, We leave you our deaths: give them their meaning: give them an end to the war and a true peace: give them a victory that ends the war and a peace afterwards: give them their meaning.
We were young, they say. We have died. Remember us.

(Archibald Macleish was a World War I veteran and Pulitzer Prize winning poet) 

Although my search for the Roman Catholic High School alumni who gave their lives in World War I has resulted in numerous, rewarding moments of discovery, it has also wrought many instances of frustration and disappointment. Dead-ends, fractured records, and a busy schedule have hindered my search from the outset. But whenever my confidence in finding Roman’s ‘lost boys’ of the Great War begins to waver, I think of the poem by Archibald Macleish. These young dead soldiers cannot speak, and, like everyone else, I did not remember them, but only because I knew nothing about them. Now that I know a bit more about who they were, where they lived, and what they strived to be, I cannot forget them. We share a common bond as we were shaped during our formative years at the same legendary high school. Born of the same philanthropic father, we are brothers for life, and I will never give up in trying to find them. I no longer worry about completing this task for I know that if I cannot, others will.

The Roman alumni of World War I were young and they died, and they do not speak, yet faint whispers can still be heard from their graves: “Remember us.”

I will…and I shall not forget.

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CG Head shot for Centennial article

CG Book Cover2Chris Gibbons is a Philadelphia writer. His recent book, “Soldiers, Space, and Stories of Life”, is available via Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. The book is a compilation of his published stories with many focusing on war veterans. An entire chapter features those stories chronicling his search for the alumni of Roman Catholic High School who fought in World War I. Chris can be reached at gibbonscg@aol.com.

 

 

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