Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

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A century ago this month, the first U.S. “doughboys” hit European battlefields to help win the Great War.

Downtown near the Willard Hotel, Pershing Park is being redesigned to honor all the soldiers, not just “Black Jack” John Pershing. The congressionally chartered World War I Commission doing the remake tells me it lets local authorities handle any politics surrounding the monuments they hope to grow around the country.

That’s of interest because Allison Finkelstein, chair of Arlington’s World War I Commemoration Task Force, is seeking community consensus on modernizing our racially segregated Clarendon monument to the local boys who perished.

Yet last week, county manager Mark Schwartz said authorities have no intention of changing the 1930 American Legion plaque on the county-owned land. Something must give between now and Veterans Day 2018.

Meantime, there are ways to reach back to our Arlington ancestors who lived the war’s drama. That’s due to the heroic research and exhibits by staff at Central Library and the Arlington Historical Society.

In dovetailing exhibits online and at the Hume School, Arlington’s war contributions come clear through photos, videos, artifacts and, most vividly, letters.

The library website’s “community archives” features, alongside recommended books on World War I, a photo of William Leo Diedrich, shot and gassed in France in October 1918 (he survived), lent by his granddaughter.

The historical society built on years of research about the 13 Arlingtonians who died in the war – thanks to society vice president Annette Benbow. In 2015, WETA filmed her observations on Arlington hero John Lyon.

She and her husband, Arlington Historical Museum Director Dr. Mark Benbow, assembled the display of recruiting posters, propaganda books and an April 1917 copy of the Evening Star covering the declaration of the U.S. entry. You see dog tags, helmets, uniforms, barb wire, a mess kit and art made in the trenches. Photos show an Army Signal Corps formation at Fort Myer.

A display titled “The First World War and the Movies” showcases such films as Mary Pickford in “One Hundred Percent American.” You see a draft registration for African-American Arthur Morgan of Hall’s Hill, who is on the Clarendon plaque.

The library and the museum share a focus on World War I ambulance driver Edward Gulager Fenwick (1897-1956). A graduate of Western High School (Arlington had no high school then), this member of a storied Arlington family went over in 1917 at age 20 – interrupting studies at the University of Virginia to join Ambulance Unit 517 with the French army. Wounded in the face and hand while saving lives, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and Croix de Guerre.

You see Fenwick’s uniform and rooster-themed patch for the ambulance team and other artifacts he brought home. (He returned to UVA, where he played football, and later settled in East Falls Church.)

Letters include one written from France at 9:30 p.m. on Saturday night, Nov. 22, 1917. “I woke up last night and heard the Bosh machine guns going at a great rate,” Fenwick wrote to his “Dearest Mommie.” “Guess the French were trying to pull off a trench raid. I have been within 200 yards of the Bosh trenches. You can’t help but feel kind of funny that close.”

Fenwick also confessed, “Gee, I feel fuzzy in my stomach, although we are all crazy to go.”

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Though I never pledged myself, I was privileged on June 11 to sit in on the 100th anniversary of Arlington’s Boy Scout Troop 149, celebrated at “base camp” at Cherrydale Methodist Church.

Scoutmasters going back to the 1950s reminisced about camping trips as far afield as Canada, New Hampshire and Virginia’s Elizabeth Furnace, in snow, hail and driving rain. Planners displayed tents and utensils dating from the 1930s.

The ‘60s cohort drew the most returnees, many adults sporting the uniforms that, as speakers noted wistfully, became an embarrassment to some scouts when fashion changed during the Vietnam war and counterculture period.  Troop 149’s numbers, as few as 12 in the ‘80s, are back up to 65.