William Beebe grew up in Orient, a small-town boy from an idyllic hamlet surrounded by farms and saltwater and reachable by a narrow causeway that made it nearly an island at the tip of the North Fork, a place by itself. He probably grew up thinking he was the luckiest young man on all of Long Island to have Orient as his home.
But his vision went beyond his home turf, and when the United States entered the Great War in 1917, he enlisted. He was 29 years old, working as a carpenter and builder. He had followed the course of the war in Europe since its eruption in August 1914. By the war’s third year, he knew what was at stake for Europe and surely knew the dangers that awaited him as an American soldier.
Like so many of his neighbors, as well as residents in Southold, Riverhead and Shelter Island, he followed coverage of the war in the newspapers, with their banner headlines about strategic battles won and lost and enormous casualty counts. The First Battle of the Marne, fought in the early weeks of the war that brought the Germans to the outskirts of Paris, killed or wounded more than 500,000 in a matter of days.
“The American role once we entered the war was to supply men to go over there and help the Allies,” said Southold Town historian Amy Folk. She is also collections manager for Oysterponds Historical Society, where Mr. Beebe’s personal papers are archived.
“We had forts leftover from the Spanish-American war,” she said. “There was Fort H.G. Wright on Fishers Island, Fort Miche on Big Gull Island and Fort Terry on Plum Island. They were training facilities and there were guns there that were pulled out and shipped to Europe.
“Even though President Wilson did not want us in the war, people here knew it would happen one day,” she added. “We would get pulled in sooner or later.”
A diary entry made by Mr. Beebe Sunday, April 15, 1918, begins the story of his wartime journey: “Left camp at 2 o’clock to the train for the point of embarkation. Arrived at L.I. City at 9 a.m. From there we took the steamer … went aboard ship at 12:30.”
He was shown his bunk and was provided with a meal. He was now en route to Europe, leaving behind his wife of four months, Irene Case. He would not return to Orient to raise a family and live out his life. When the Armistice was declared — on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 — he would be counted among America’s 116,516 World War I casualties.
This Sunday, Nov. 11, is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. America declared war on Germany in April 1917. By June, a huge camp called Fort Upton was under construction in the Pine Barrens near Yaphank, a place immortalized by one songwriting soldier who would later become rather famous, Irving Berlin, in a musical revue called “Yip Yip Yaphank.” A thousand buildings were erected to house nearly 40,000 soldiers in training. Forts were also established in Nassau County.
“All the East End communities — Greenport, Riverhead, East Hampton — held elaborate patriotic rallies that involved the sale of Liberty Bonds,” said historian Richard Welch, who has written about Long Island during World War I. “The Fourth of Julys during the war years showed massive displays for the war effort. Americans had been closely following the war before we got involved.
“The Boy Scouts were involved, as were the Red Cross and religious and social organizations like the Knights of Columbus,” he added. “They were all involved in promoting the war. Old Civil War veterans who were members of the Grand Army of the Republic got involved in Riverhead and Greenport. They would come to events in their uniforms.”
Mr. Welch is scheduled to speak at Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead today, Thursday, Nov. 8, at 6 p.m. On Sunday, Nov. 11, at 10:30 a.m. a ceremony will take place at Mattituck American Legion Post 861 honoring the 100th anniversary of the Armistice. The day is now called Veterans Day.
Riverhead’s observance hosted by the Combined Veterans of Riverhead will begin at 11:11 a.m. Sunday at the World War I memorial.
Thousands of men from Riverhead, Southold and Shelter Island towns registered for the draft, and many found their way first to training camps and then onto troop ships crossing the Atlantic Ocean, where German U-boats lurked ominously, waiting for targets. A 1917 Militia Enrollment List for Southold was discovered behind a door in the basement of Town Hall in 1998.
In 1917, perhaps half of Southold Town’s 7,000 residents were men. The names of roughly 2,000 of those men appear on that list — a very high number for a small town of farmers, shopkeepers, baymen and shipbuilders. Their surnames are still familiar: Albertson, Tuthill, Corwin, Vail, Grathwohl, Reeves and Penny.
The exact number of war-related deaths among local men is not entirely certain; in Southold alone, there were approximately two dozen — but we know from records that Mr. Beebe was killed, as was his Orient neighbor John Wallace Jones. Charles Chituck of Greenport, who was born in Russia and arrived in New York as a 2-year-old, died in France. Burton Potter, after whom Greenport American Legion Post 185 is named, died from his wounds.
Southold men listed as “colored” also served, their individual contributions and stories barely recorded in our local histories. One of them, George Hannibal of Greenport, was critically wounded in France. He did not return home until the spring of 1919. Mr. Hannibal may have been among the last members of the North Fork’s Native American community, as his surname is associated with the Corchaug and Montaukett peoples.
Some local women also found their way to Europe after America became involved in the war. Margaret McCarthy of Laurel was a member of the Army Nurse Corps. She enlisted in 1918 and worked in a number of tent hospitals in France before the Armistice was declared. After the war, she estimated that she’d handled more than 40,000 cases. The names of dozens of local men who served are memorialized on the monument that sits in front of Southold Free Library.
Riverhead’s memorial and its eternal flame honor the 333 men who served; that list includes the eight who gave their lives.
On Nov. 25, 1922, the installation of Greenport’s World War I Monument — a charging doughboy clutching a rifle that stands tall at the intersection of First and Main streets — was celebrated with a huge parade. A number of aging Civil War veterans attended, along with veterans from Shelter Island and across the East End. More than 50 uniformed sailors from the destroyer Lamson, docked in Greenport Harbor, filed along in the parade.
Mr. Beebe and his wife did not have more than a few months together. They had no children and Irene Beebe later married a man named Daniel Dickerson. Remarkably, in 1986, she donated Mr. Beebe’s diary to the Oysterponds Historical Society. Her gift helps us keep this good man’s name alive today.