Southold Historical Society’s current exhibit, “The Homefront,” commemorates the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I.
The exhibit focuses on Southold Town’s role from 1917 to 1918 and features the story of Carl Vail, a Southold resident who fought in the war, left behind a diary and gave the historical society an oral history before his death in 1998.
“There are great questions and wonderful reactions to the exhibit,” director Karen Lund-Rooney said. “He survived as a soldier and was gassed with mustard gas.”
Mr. Vail died at the age of 102. After the war, he resided on a farm in Southold and established two car dealerships.
Historical society intern Alex Bradley, a recent Mattituck High School grad soon headed to Tufts University in Massachusetts, has been reading from Mr. Vail’s wartime diary and used it to stage a re-enactment, donning a uniform accurate to the period. Mr. Bradley gave several performances as Mr. Vail, the last of them this past weekend.
“Adults and children are just fascinated,” Ms. Lund-Rooney said. “He gets kids in a circle and they get to ask him questions about what it was like to be a soldier.”
Carl Vail was born in 1895 and grew up in Peconic. The Vails are among Long Island’s oldest families and a Vail has fought in nearly every American war or conflict since the French and Indian War, according to the historical society. He enlisted in the United States Army one year after graduating from high school in 1917, leaving his family’s farm.
Mr. Vail fought in the Battle of the Argonne Forest and recalled the first day of the attack, when he rounded up six wounded men and went to find help. He found a Model T ambulance with a driver and a lieutenant and started back to the front line.
“It was nearly dark and every time the old Ford would make a noise the Germans would respond with a burst of machine gun fire,” an excerpt from the re-enactment script reads. “I assured the Lieutenant and driver that these firings were high over the treetops, so they would keep going to where my buddies were bleeding to death. Finally a gas shell exploded in the road ahead and the Lieutenant wanted the driver to stop and back out of the area so he could get his gas mask on. I said, ‘Hell, hold your breath and step on the gas.’ ”
After loading the ambulance to capacity, Mr. Vail said he and his friend carried the other three wounded men several miles to where they could be picked up.
“Even though I was raised on a farm when all the plowing was done by horses and fertilizer came in 167-pound bags, I found carrying one end of a stretcher much more strenuous, especially over rough terrain under fire,” Mr. Vail recounted in his oral history.
He was wounded by mustard gas a month before the war ended and received a Purple Heart in 1982. In March 1998, then-congressman Michael Forbes submitted a passage honoring him to the Congressional Record, calling Mr. Vail “a man of great dignity and integrity, someone who held dear his Long Island home and served his country with special distinction. Carl Vail made you feel proud to be an American.”
One fun fact from the exhibit reveals that when women were first allowed to join the Navy, about 11,000 did so — but they had to make their own uniforms. The exhibit also displays Red Cross uniforms that were worn by people here on the homefront while they rolled bandages and knitted socks. Other uniforms, facts and displays explain more about the war.
“The Homefront” runs through Oct. 8 and can be viewed Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Ann Currie Bell House in the historical society’s museum complex.
“My main goal is to help people connect with history,” Mr. Bradley said. “We can hear a lot of facts and not get anything out of them, but to see a piece of history and be able to talk to that person, it’ll help us learn and connect and understand our history a little better.”
Top photo caption: An example of the uniforms worn on the homefront by American Red Cross volunteers who knitted socks and wrapped bandages during World War I. (Credit: Rachel Siford)