We forget today just what an impact World War I had on the lives of its participants and their families. Last Fall author Kevin Fitzpatrick sent the webmaster two blog posts from his upcoming book: “World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War.” However, the webmaster has been delinquent in publishing them. With the book set to release in late March, 2017, here is one of the two stories:
When the City Rallied for John J. Monson of the “Lost Battalion”
By Kevin C. Fitzpatrick
Ten years ago I started research at Cypress Hills National Cemetery, on the border of Brooklyn and Queens in New York. For a landmark—and one of the first ten U.S. cemeteries created by President Lincoln in 1862—I’ve always been the only visitor. That’s because it closed to new internments in 1954 and now it rarely sees any activity. Or mourners. It was one of these trips that led me to the story of the sad demise of Private John J. Monson of the “Lost Battalion.”
When I was preparing my upcoming book, World War I New York: A Guide to the City’s Enduring Ties to the Great War (Globe Pequot, March 2017), I finally had a place to include Private Monson. I was originally drawn to Cypress Hills while researching Governors Island, the location of Fort Jay in New York Harbor. In 1886 the Army moved more than 500 men, women, and children interred in the post cemetery to Cypress Hills. Some were Confederate prisoners of war who died in captivity on Governors Island. This is the only national cemetery in the city. New York at one time had more than twenty daily newspapers, and when reading old issues, Private Monson and his burial in Cypress Hills National Cemetery caught my attention.
John Joseph Monson was from Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. He was a laborer before the war and lived in rooming houses on Oliver Street. He was drafted on February 25, 1918 when he was almost 29. Jack Monson was a member of Company A, 308th Infantry Regiment, Seventh-Seventh Division, for the duration of his World War I service. He arrived in France on April 6 with other replacements.
The 308th Infantry was a key component of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, its exploits well chronicled. On September 29, three men broke out to save the lives of the “Lost Battalion”: Lieutenant Arthur McKeogh, and Privates Jack Herschkowitz and John J. Monson. Their bravery helped save the lives of the men trapped for five days in the Argonne Forest. The New York Times wrote, “Private Monson carried the message through German lines that reunited the battalion.” Press accounts referred to him as “the runner” and one said he came across an enemy soldier, who the private quickly dispatched with four shots from his sidearm. For his bravery Private Monson won the Distinguished Service Cross. He was promoted to corporal.
The regiment returned to New York in April 1919 and demobilized at Camp Mills. Corporal Monson was awarded the Croix de Guerre at City Hall Square by officers of the French Army and Mayor John Hylan later that year. After the war Corporal Monson reenlisted in the Army in 1919 at Governors Island. He was a member of Company A, Sixty-First Infantry Regiment, Fifth Division, organized from the old Seventh Infantry of the New York National Guard.
Just two years after his Croix de Guerre was pinned on his uniform, Corporal Monson was classified as a deserter and absent without leave. In July 1921 he was stricken with tuberculosis, and not wanting to tell anyone who he was, checked into New York Hospital. His condition was grim and he died soon after. Taken to Bellevue Hospital as a John Doe, his body went unclaimed in the morgue for three days until his identity was learned. It made front-page news and the city—worried Monson would go to Potter’s Field on Hart Island—rallied to honor him.
On July 15, 1921, members of his old regiment gathered on the Upper West Side for funeral services attended by three hundred at the Roman Catholic Church of the Ascension, 221 West 107th Street. Father James J. Halligan, former chaplain of the 308th, gave the eulogy. “He came from obscurity,” Halligan said. “There was nothing remarkable about him and those who knew him before would have hardly discerned the heroic in him. Yet there was burning within him the fires of patriotism, nourished and developed in this great city, and this patriotism found expression on that day in October 1918. He went out with two of his comrades. He knew it was not an easy mission and that it would be most difficult to get through without being discovered. He and his companions leaped not to safety but into danger from the enemy.”
The requiem mass was followed by a parade that stretched twelve blocks south on Broadway, led by an honor guard and band from Fort Jay. A caisson carried Corporal Monson’s remains and Jack Herschkowitz walked behind it, holding his friend’s medals for bravery on a black silk pillow.
The large funeral cortege continued to Cypress Hills National Cemetery via car and train. At the burial in Brooklyn his former commander, Lieutenant Colonel Charles W. Whittlesey, attested to his high regard for Monson. Arthur McKeogh, the third member of the relief expedition, helped lower the coffin into the ground. A ceremonial honor guard from Fort Jay oversaw the services and buglers performed “Taps” for Corporal Monson.
This was the last meeting of the “Lost Battalion” members and their commander. Four months after the gravesite gathering in Brooklyn, Lieutenant Colonel Whittlesey took his own life by jumping overboard from a ship bound for Cuba.
Corporal Monson is buried in Section Two, Grave 8409. The stone carver did such a poor job, or the granite the government received was so inferior, that the hero’s name is not legible any longer. At the time of his death, newspapers reported that a permanent memorial was planned for Corporal Monson. If it was erected, it cannot be located today.
Kevin C. Fitzpatrick (fitzpatrickauthor.com) is the author and editor of six books tied to New York City history. His most recent is The Governors Island Explorer’s Guide (Globe Pequot, 2016). He resides in Manhattan, where he leads walking tours. Kevin is the organizer of World War One History Day on Governors Island, and is a member of the World War One Centennial Committee for New York City (wwi100nyc.org).
Photo credits: Cemetery, Kevin C. Fitzpatrick. Monson portrait, courtesy Robert J. Laplander collection.