Remembering the dead during war time, 1917

Sandy Vasko

        Memorial Day brings out the split personality in all of us. Part of us knows that it is a time to honor the dead, especially those who have died in war. And many of us do in our own way.
    But the other part of us knows that it is a time for getting together with friends and family. A time for good food and good times. We shouldn't feel guilty about this.
    Those who have gone before us would be the first to tell us to enjoy life while we can. In 1917 it was a bit different. Many were living in fear of their own loved ones becoming part of the honored dead.
    During the late spring of 1917 the entire population was involved in the war in one way or another. Patriotic fever swept over Wilmington with a vengeance. Everywhere you looked you would see the red, white and blue. It became a sort of contest.
    We read on April 13, 1917 in the Wilmington Advocate, “The employees of the American Straw Board company, have shown their patriotism by hoisting a large American flag upon the 75-foot water tower at the paper mill in this city. Old Glory was placed upon the flagpole on the tower last Tuesday evening, and it now floats proudly to the breezes.”
    Others became involved in a more direct way by organizing a unit of the Red Cross. Even before it was organized, the Women's Relief Corps, who had been involved in the Soldiers' Widows' Home, began raising money.
    On May 18, 1917 it was announced, “An entertainment for the benefit of the Red Cross movement will be held at Donohoe's Opera House, Thursday evening, May 24, under the auspices of the Woman's Relief Corps of Wilmington.
    “A prominent Red Cross worker will give a short address on the need of a Red Cross organization in every city during these strenuous war times. The ushers of the evening will be in Red Cross Uniform, and patriotic emblems of all kinds will be on sale at Quimby's shoe store during the week, and at the hall the night of the entertainment.
    “The proceeds of the evening will be used for the furtherance of a Wilmington Red Cross unit to be organized in the near future. An appeal is made to all patriotic citizens to help make this entertainment a big success. Admission 50 cents ($9.50 today), children 25 cents.”
    When Memorial Day came it was a wash out. “Whether the clouds wept in sympathy with those who hold Memorial day near and dear, or whether it was the fault of the weather man, the fact remains that the day was a mean, drizzling and cool day. The Sons of Veterans who had charge of the exercises wended their way to the cemeteries where the soldiers' graves were reverently decorated with flags and flowers.
    “In the afternoon our citizens and the many visitors from out of town gathered at the Opera House where memorial exercises were held the Callahan band furnished music. After prayer by Rev. Bayard, Mr. Callahan of the Callahan Comedy Co. sang a soul stirring song after which Representative M. F. Hennebry gave a lengthy talk on patriotism and loyalty to our country in its present crisis. The choir sang ‘Where are the Boys of the Old Brigade,’ then Attorney Wm. A. Murphy of Joliet delivered a fine oration which was attentively listened to. The exercises closed with a song by the choir and then benediction by Rev. Bayard.”
    Almost immediately afterward Rev. Bayard was called on again. “The remains of Joseph Cerveny, who died May 28, of scarlet fever at the base hospital at Nogales, Arizona, where he, as one of the members of Company A, 25th Infantry, was stationed at the United States military training camp, arrived here Tuesday afternoon on the 4:05 train. Rev. Bayard, pastor of the Methodist church, officiated at the chapel and at the grave.
    “A firing squad from the Dandy First regiment stationed at Dellwood Park, arrived here on the 10:30 a.m. train and were at once taken to the Melcher chapel where they took possession of the remains of their dead soldier brother, as pallbearers, and tenderly carried him to the funeral car and the remains were escorted to Oakwood cemetery where short services were held, after which the firing squad fired volleys over the grave, and then the bugle call was given.”
    Nearly every business house closed their places of business during the funeral in respect to young “Joe” who gave up his life while preparing himself to fight for ‘Your flag and my flag.’ Although orders were given for no public funeral nearly every citizen in our city, with the exception of the school children, were at the chapel or cemetery.”
    At the same time the following call went out in the Advocate, “On Monday evening, June 4, at 8 o'clock, all those interested in Red Cross work are requested to meet at Donahoe's Opera House to organize a Wilmington Red Cross unit. Everybody is invited to join this unit and make it one of the largest in Will County. Now is the time to show your patriotism and help a good cause along.”
    The call was answered, “At the Opera House in this city last Monday evening despite the inclemency of the weather, a large number were present to organize a unit of the Red Cross Society in this city. The unit was organized with a membership of nearly 100. Dr. W. H. Curitis was elected President and John B. Warner secretary and treasurer.”
    “The proceeds of the recent musical entertainment given by the W. R. C. was turned over to the Red Cross fund. There are now 180 members belonging to the Wilmington unit.”
    The war had just begun, and Memorial Day was just another reminder of the uncertainty of life during those trying times.