The Cannon That Roared: Pelham Sacrifices a Memorial for the Nation’s Sake
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Ten years ago, on Memorial Day, May 29, 2006, members of Pelham American Legion Post 50 unveiled a bronze plaque long stored in the basement of Town Hall. It commemorates the Battle of Soissons that occurred July 18 – 20, 1918 in France near the close of World War I. The story behind the plaque says much about the citizens of Pelham and their admirable spirit. Telling this story again seems important on this Memorial Day, 2016.
On a crisp morning in January 2006, volunteers from the Office of the Town Historian unpacked boxes and files taken from a dank room in the basement of Town Hall. The volunteers opened long-sealed cartons and unfolded brittle papers with a gleam in their eyes not unlike that seen in the crazed countenances of obsessed treasure hunters.
Precious metal, indeed, they found – not gold or silver but bronze. It was a bronze plaque to be exact. It read:
FIRST FRENCH MOROCCAN DIVISION
SECOND DIVISION U.S. REGULARS
Clearly the plaque had an important tale to tell. But its brief inscription revealed little.
The reference to the Battle of Soissons was a reference to an important battle during World War I. The battle, considered by some to be a turning point of World War I, raged for days near the French town of Soissons. American troops pounded the Germans so severely that the Germans lost momentum and, ultimately, the War. Yet, the battle had its cost – more than twelve thousand American soldiers and marines dead, wounded or missing. See generally Johnson II, Douglas V. & Hillman Jr., Rolfe L., SOISSONS, 1918 (Texas A&M Press 1999).
The mute metal plaque found in the basement of Town Hall referenced the Battle, but does not say why the plaque was dedicated. It was time for detective work. This article, originally published in the 2006 Memorial Day edition of The Pelham Weekly, details the results of that work.
A Captured German Cannon
At the close of World War I, shiploads of captured war matériel arrived in New York City. John H. Young, a famous Broadway scenic artist who later lived at 228 Highbrook Avenue, had a friend responsible for one such shipload. His friend invited him to come to New York City and cart away one of the fieldpieces “of which there were a large number.” See John Young, Designer of Stage Scenery, 86 – Constructed Sets for Many Leading Producers Here, N.Y. Times, Jan. 5, 1944, p. 17. See also Will Not Permit War Memorial To Go To Scrap Heap, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 13, Jul. 2, 1942, p. 1, col. 1.
Young paid Michael Lynch of North Pelham to send a “sand wagon” and a team of horses to the docks. Id. Lynch and his team hauled a captured German fieldpiece back to Pelham where, Mr. Young later recalled, Lynch dumped it in front of Town Hall where “the chief of police had custody of it.” Id.
The cannon seems to have been moved to the grounds of the new Pelham Memorial High School in the early 1920s. The site was perfect. The High School, built between 1919 and 1922, honored those Pelham citizens who served their country, and those who sacrificed their lives, during World War I. By 1924, however, the fieldpiece lay amidst debris on the high school grounds. See Gardner Minard, Former Head of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Objects to Scrapping Fieldpiece Memorial, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 12, Jun. 26, 1942, p. 1, col. 4.
The Cannon Is Saved
J. Gardner Minard, an active member of the Walsh-Marvel Post No. 307 – Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pelham, rescued the cannon from the debris. (Minard later served as Commander of the V.F.W. Post and Village Historian of the Village of North Pelham.)
In 1925 or 1926, Minard had the fieldpiece removed from the high school and repaired. Id. Famed artist Remington Schuyler painted the cannon in camouflage style. Id. Local contractor John T. Brook, later head of the Pelham National Bank that failed during the Depression, constructed a large concrete block in Memorial Park on the lot next to Town Hall on which the cannon would rest. Id.
During rainy Memorial Day ceremonies ninety years ago today, on May 30, 1926, the Town of Pelham unveiled the captured cannon resting on the impressive concrete base with a bronze plaque affixed to that base. The plaque commemorated the Battle of Soissons. The only surviving Civil War veteran then living in Pelham, Major Charles A. Walker, removed the veiling from the gun. Rain Fails To Dampen Pelham’s Spirit in Memorial Day Tribute To Memory of World War Heroes, The Pelham Sun, Jun. 4, 1926, Vol. 17, No. 14, p. 1, col. 5. He humbly said: “I don’t know why I have been selected for this honor; my part in this has been so small.”). Id.
Master of Ceremonies Lt. Col. David A. L’Esperance spoke of the memorial. He said, in part:
“it is a symbol of war and should be an example of what war really is, and its very being in this town will help to teach the younger generation what they must be trained to prevent. There is none of you who is willing to stand in front of that gun and have it fired, but it will stand as an example to teach America to be so prepared as to never be forced to face such an implement.” Id.
Though the provenance of the German cannon may not have been known with certainty, virtually every reference indicates it was captured during the Battle of Soissons. J. Gardner Minard (who rescued the gun from rusting destruction) was among those citizens of Pelham who took part in the Battle of Soissons. Gardner Minard, Former Head of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Objects to Scrapping Fieldpiece Memorial, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 12, Jun. 26, 1942, p. 1, col. 4.
As in so many other towns and villages throughout the nation, the fieldpiece next to Pelham’s Town Hall became a patriotic symbol of courage, sacrifice and conviction in the face of adversity. For the next sixteen years, Pelham Veterans, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts and citizens ended each Memorial Day parade with a thoughtful ceremony beneath the mouth of the cannon that once had roared but now stood silently in reverence as a reminder of the liberties protected at so terrible cost by those who fought and died in the First World War.
The years passed. In 1936, the Walsh-Marvel Post No. 307 – Veterans of Foreign Wars in Pelham disbanded. Id. Still the cannon stood, a silent sentinel, until . . . World War II.
World War II and Salvage Drives
Following the dastardly attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and the nation’s entry into World War II, Pelham mobilized. Citizens created the “War Council of the Pelhams”. Among the many divisions of that War Council was the Salvage Division. In the early months John A. Dittrich headed that Division. Later, Francis Lawton, Jr. chaired it. See War Council of The Pelhams and the Office of Civilian Protection, p. 1 (Jun. 11, 1943) (pamphlet report with unnumbered pages; original in collection of The Office of The Historian of The Town of Pelham).
Within a few months, John Dittrich wrote Town Supervisor Tom Fenlon a letter stating, in part:
“There is a cannon – a memento of World War No. I that I feel will serve a much better and more definite purpose in being made available for scrap so that [it] might readily be converted into war material. . . . This was discussed with George Usbeck, Commander of Post 50, American Legion, and he is in favor of releasing this memento for salvage.”
Two Huge Tires and German Gun Among Salvage, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 11, Jun. 19, 1942, p. 1, col. 7.
A short time later, Commander Usbeck consulted with members of Pelham Post 50 and issued a letter to Supervisor Fenlon saying: “The Pelham Legion Post feels that the cannon at present located in Memorial Park should be given to the scrap material collection. A committee will arrange for its removal providing this plan meets with the approval of the Town Board. I feel certain that this item soon will be replaced by one made in Japan.” Id.
The Pelham Sun reported the correspondence on June 19, 1942. That same evening, the Town Board held a special meeting at which it passed a resolution dedicating the gun for scrap provided that it could be confirmed that the Town owned the gun. See All’s Quiet on The Eastern Front; Controversy Over Disposal of War Memorial Dies Down; Placque Reset, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 14, Jul. 10, 1942, p. 1, col. 1.
J. Gardiner Minard’s heart must have skipped a beat when he read newspaper accounts of these developments. The memorial cannon clearly symbolized to him the sacrifices of many. It reminded him of the comrades with whom he had such close relationships during his years with the local V.F.W. post. Perhaps most importantly, as one account noted, the plaque “constituted the last reminder of the existence of a Post of the V. F. W. in Pelham”. See Gardner Minard, Former Head of Veterans of Foreign Wars Post Objects to Scrapping Fieldpiece Memorial, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 12, Jun. 26, 1942, p. 1, col. 4.
J. Gardiner Minard Saves the Plaque
Fearful that the memorial would be scrapped soon, Gardiner Minard notified Village Police that he planned to remove the plaque and that if “anyone wanted to know where it was, he would have possession of it”. Id. He marched directly to the memorial and removed it. Id.
Minard claimed ownership of the plaque and custody of the fieldpiece. He asserted that:
“he had a chattel mortgage on all the effects of the Walsh-Marvel Post, V. F. W., when it disbanded after having permanent headquarters in the Callan building north of the Town Hall for several years. He foreclosed and became possessed of its effects, and he avers the responsibility for custody of the German gun.” Id.
Everyone agreed, as Supervisor Fenlon reportedly put it, that “[t]he need for scrap metal is not so great at the present time as to warrant a town dispute over dismantling the fieldpiece. If it were really needed for scrap metal I don’t believe Mr. Minard or the Town Board would disagree over parting with it”. Id.
Nevertheless, Supervisor Fenlon was not happy with the removal of the plaque. Nor was Mr. Minard satisfied with any possibility that so important a memorial might be scrapped unnecessarily.
Despite the standoff, an amicable resolution followed within a matter of weeks. By late July, a headline in The Pelham Sun reported that “All’s Quiet On The Eastern Front” as the “Controversy Over Disposal Of War Memorial Dies Down”.
It seems that Gardner Minard quelled the dispute when, in early July, he quietly replaced the revered plaque on the concrete pedestal that supported the captured German cannon. The local paper reported that, as a consequence, “The Town Board . . . will probably rescind its resolution” agreeing to scrap the gun if the Town owned it. See All’s Quiet on The Eastern Front; Controversy Over Disposal of War Memorial Dies Down; Placque Reset, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 14, Jul. 10, 1942, p. 1, col. 1.
It seems that Gardner Minard quelled the dispute when, in early July, he quietly replaced the revered plaque on the concrete pedestal that supported the captured German cannon. Id. The local paper reported that, as a consequence, “The Town Board . . . will probably rescind its resolution” agreeing to scrap the gun if the Town owned it. Id.
Barely two weeks later, circumstances changed. On Saturday, July 18, 1942, the nation’s War Department issued a request that “obsolete military equipment, especially ‘German artillery pieces and like relics’ be taken off courthouse lawns and contributed to a nation-wide salvage campaign." German Fieldpiece May Be Scrapped In War Dept. Campaign, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 16, Jul. 24, 1942, p. 1, col. 4.
This time there was no hesitation. Uncle Sam needed scrap for the War effort. Though Gardner Minard knew what must be done, he expressed personal pain saying “I personally have a deep regard for that gun because I took part in the battle where it was captured, and I would regret to see it depart from its current location.” Id.
Despite his regrets, Mr. Minard told the Town Board that because of the War Department’s request, he had no opposition to the scrapping of the gun. See Ordered To Scrap German Cannon, A Veterans’ Memento, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 19, Aug. 14, 1942, p. 1, col. 7. Mr. Minard asked, however, that the concrete base and its plaque be kept intact “so that another war relic might be mounted thereon after the present war.” Id.
George S. Usbeck, Commander of Pelham Post No. 50, American Legion, appeared at the same Town Board meeting and urged the Board to give the cannon to the Salvage Division of the War Council. According to one account, the “Board acquiesced to his request after Harry F. Mela, appearing as a private citizen, had made an appeal for the gun for salvage, and had donated a German helmet and an iron cross to the salvage collection.” Id.
Pelham and its citizens had decided to scrap a sacred memorial for the sake of the nation.
The Cannon Is Scrapped
On Wednesday, August 26, 1942, workers took the gun apart with an acetylene torch under the supervision of Vincent Lopardi, official “Salvager” for Pelham (and other Towns and Cities in Westchester County). The plaque remained affixed to the concrete base. In recognition of the significance of the memorial, the base was used as a salvage depot throughout the remainder of the War. See German Cannon Goes To War For Uncle Sam, The Pelham Sun, Vol. 32, No. 21, Aug. 28, 1942, p. 1, col. 3.
The Pelham Sun reported that after taking apart and weighing the gun, an astonished Vincent Lopardi revealed that “the gun weighed 1776 pounds.” Id. That was, of course, minus the weight of the bronze plaque that later made its way to the basement of Town Hall. That plaque was unveiled, yet again, on Memorial Day, May 29, 2006, nearly ten years ago to the day. It has stood proudly as an important memorial ever since.
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