To mark centennial, historian searches for World War I memorials

08/05/2014 12:00 AM

08/05/2014 6:57 AM

On Armistice Day 1926, the World War I memorial was unveiled on what was then called the 21st Street Road in William Land Park.

The $2,000 monument, a tribute to World War I heroes, was erected with great fanfare by the Women’s Council of Sacramento. In those days, the monument was set back from the street on a stone patio partially encircled by a low stone wall. But a subsequent road widening left it wedged right up to the sidewalk along Freeport Boulevard, where thousands of cars stream by each day. There is no pedestrian walkway to the well-maintained memorial, although a jogging path is worn into the grass nearby.

“Most Sacramentans when they drive by probably have no idea it is here,” said Sacramento historian and librarian James C. Scott.

With this year’s centennial commemoration of the start of World War I (1914-1918), a Washington D.C. art historian named Mark Levitch is searching for memorials from the Great War just like the bronze eagle-topped Land Park memorial, which carries the names of 119 Sacramento County men and women who died in the first World War.

They are a melting pot of immigrants and sons and daughters of immigrants: French, German, Irish, Chinese, Italian, Scandinavian among them. They were farmhands, sons of brewers and hoteliers, cannery workers and an entomologist.

“It is a composite of an immigrant army,” Scott said.

Through his nationwide inventory, Levitch seeks to document and assess the condition of World War I memorials and to raise public awareness of the presence and plight of the historic monuments. Levitch said because all men and women who fought in World War I are dead, the memorials are the most noticeable and important links still left to the war. So far he has documented 2,000, and he estimates there may be 8,000 more. The United States lost 116,000 service members in World War I. Another 205,000 were wounded.

The memorials come in all shapes and sizes, from grand monuments to metal statues of doughboys. Some World War I memorials are well-maintained, while others are hidden behind fences or in disrepair. The Sacramento memorial is on Levitch’s list.

Levitch, who is working with the World War I Centennial Commission, hopes to get the public involved in listing memorials through the commission’s website. Eventually, if a memorial isn’t listed, information and photographs can be added.

“I think it is important because we are entering the centennial period and I think the war has unjustly faded from our collective memory,” he said.

World War I began in July 1914 with the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Soon, England, France and Russia lined up against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

President Woodrow Wilson kept the United States out of the war initially, campaigning on the slogan “He kept us out of war.” But in April 1917, the United States declared war on Germany.

The Sacramento Public Library recently completed a five-program series on the Great War, including an address by librarian Scott, whose talk was titled “Great War in the Great Valley.” He plans another talk on the war in November.

Scott said that prior to the U.S. entrance into the war, Sacramento was aloof to the devastation in Europe.

Then, the nation entered the war.

When the draft began, businesses such as Weinstock-Lubin department store were closed for a day so that men could register. In October 1917, the Sacramento Valley shipped 1 million sacks of wheat and barley to Europe.

While Sacramento residents were to die in battle, many in the military and civilian life would perish from Spanish influenza, which appeared in the spring of 1918. By Halloween that year, the city had 2,000 cases.

One of the names on the Sacramento memorial is that of Lillian Todhunter, 18, who died from Spanish flu while stationed at Mare Island.

She reported to the station in September. On October 21, 1918, she died. The yeomanette, as The Sacramento Bee described her, received a burial with full military honors. The Bee said that a “search of government records by naval officials develops that Miss Lillian Todhunter was the first girl in the naval service to die in service to her country.”

Others, of course, died in battle. Hugo Frank Wallner, a Sacramento High graduate, was a math whiz who worked at the California National Bank, 4th and J streets, Scott said.

Wallner was sent into combat in September 1918 and died of wounds suffered during an attack in the Epinonville sector of the Argonne.

“The war was such a fundamentally heartbreaking and depressing episode in Sacramento history,” said Scott.

And now, 100 years have passed, said Scott.

“Was the sacrifice worth it?” he asked. “It’s a compelling topic. It was a war that changed the world.”

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