2018-01-25 / Columnists

Organization for all men who have been in service - Part 1

by Sandi Brewster-walker

Twenty years before the Hunter-Squires-Jackson Post, of North Amityville, organized by men of color, was officially chartered by the national American Legion on March 29, 1939, the Babylon Post #94 became the first organization in Suffolk County to receive their permanent charter.

As local soldiers of the Great War (World War I) returned home, veterans of color were optimistic that their patriotism and sacrifices would have a positive impact on their local communities. But, they were welcomed back into a Suffolk County world of discrimination, segregation, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) having open-air recruitment meetings, and marching on the streets of Babylon, Bay Shore and Lindenhurst. Within this environment, the American Legion movement began to organize local post in Suffolk County.

It is believed local Amityville and Babylon soldiers of color, who had fought alongside the French, had attended the historic Paris (France) founding caucus of the American Legion. The meeting was held on March 15-17, 1919 by three officers of the American Expeditionary Forces (REF) commanded by General John Joseph Pershing.

General John Joseph Pershing General John Joseph Pershing Here the decision was made to meet in St. Louis on May 8, 9 and 10 to continue forming a national wartime veteran’s organization. At the meeting delegates would organize the American Legion, as a non-partisan and no-political association of the veterans of the Great War.

Membership would be open to all officers and enlisted veterans, who had served in the military for the United States at any time between April 6, 1917, and Nov. 11, 1918. But the question of integrated, or segregated posts, as well as accepting women was left to each state department and county division.

On April 25, the County Review, a Riverhead newspaper, announced an upcoming meeting to select delegates from Brooklyn and Long Island to attend the St. Louis Caucus. Originally, the state has been divided into five districts, and district #2 would include Brooklyn and the whole of Long Island. The delegates were excited when Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., a Long Islander, called the St. Louis Caucus to order!

Paris Caucus Paris Caucus Within about two weeks, the May 7 issue of the South Side Signal (Babylon) newspaper reported the organizational meetings of the Babylon post, and a new Suffolk County District.

The Signal stated, “On Sat., May 8, there will be a meeting of the County organization of the American Legion at Port Jefferson.” This was an important meeting, where the Suffolk County District by-laws of the American Legion were passed.

On July 25, the Signal reported, 15 veterans have signed an application for a charter for the proposed Babylon Post, and J. Gerald Benkard had forwarded it to the American Legion headquarters. The newspaper continued, “At least 60 World War veterans have signified their intention of join the local post when organized.” But, at least 372 men gave their “Place of Birth” or “Service Start Place” as Babylon, according to the New York State Abstract of World War 1, Military Service 1917-19 online database.

The Signal reported on Aug. 15, the Babylon Post #94 and Burton Potter Post #185, of Greenport, were the only two Suffolk County organizations officially enrolled in the newly founded American Legion.

“Since the first charter was issued on June 2 last, 200 posts have been formed in this state.” J. Gerald Benkard was the main organizer of the Babylon Post, and had served in both the Spanish-American War and the Great War.

At the age of 23 years old, James Gerald Benkard (c1875-1941) first enlisted as a private at Camp Black, Hempstead Plains in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. Still in the service, he was commissioned on Nov. 18, 1899 as 2nd lieutenant, Infantry, and assigned to Company B, 12th NY Regiment. A few years later, he was promoted to 1st lieutenant on July 24, 1905, and captain commander of Company B, 12th NY Regiment on Nov. 14, 1905. By the 1920 US Federal Census, J. Gerald was living on Fire Island Avenue, Babylon, and working as a broker at the NY Stock Exchange.

Service Record Cards for Lillian Weeks, Charles Eaton, Frederick J. Woods , George Field and Daniel W. Wynkoop. Service Record Cards for Lillian Weeks, Charles Eaton, Frederick J. Woods , George Field and Daniel W. Wynkoop. The summer of 1919 saw the beginning of race riots in cities, and the KKK marching on Long Island streets. While Suffolk County white veterans were organizing, sharing war stories and discussing the new American Legion, the veterans of color were in survival mode because of the increase in discrimination and segregation! They met in places like Albany Hall on Albany Avenue to discuss strategies in this new postwar world!

In this environment, the third post to form in Suffolk County was Patchogue Post #269 according to the Signal on Aug. 22, 1919. Three days later, the Babylon Post, which had officially received their charter dated July 8, 1919 was preparing to elect officers. On Aug. 29, Daniel Woodbury Wynkoop (president), James Gerald Benkard (1st vice president), Charles Sidney Easton (2nd vice president), James Bulger Robbins (3rd vice president), Ralph Dewitt Howell (secretary) and Frederick Jarvis Wood (treasurer) were elected.

Daniel Woodbury Wynkoop's (c1872-1930) service start date was July 25, 1917. He was assigned to Plattsburg Barracks, ORC, and commissioned captain, Aug. 10, 1917. Daniel went overseas on March 30, 1918, and on Oct. 14, 1918, he was promoted to major. As a medical doctor, he was assigned to the 23rd Engineers until he was discharged on May 27, 1919.

On Nov. 6, 1917, Charles Sidney Easton (1891-1953) enlisted in the Navy, and was stationed at the 3rd District Headquarters, Naval Yard in New York as a yeoman 2nd class. He would be promoted to yeoman 1st class, then chief yeoman before leaving service on Nov. 11, 1918. After World War I, he worked as a bank clerk, and in 1942, his draft registration stated he was employed at Suffolk County Federal Savings & Loan, Main Street, Babylon.

James Bulger Robbins (1888- 1948) enrolled at the Navy Yard (NY) on Nov. 27, 1917, and served as a seaman at the Naval Training Station, Pelham Bay Park. He was later transferred to the Naval Auxiliary Reserves as a quartermaster 3rd class before he left service on June 18, 1918.

Ralph Dewitt Howell (1897-1985) of George Street, Babylon enlisted at Fort Slocum, on David Island in the western part of the Long Island Sound (NY) on June 4, 1918 at the age of 21. He served as a private until he was discharged Dec. 7, 1918.

Frederick “Fred” Jarvis Wood (1887-1954), of Carll Avenue, was inducted at Camp Greene (NC), and would serve at the Company 39 Infantry headquarters. He was overseas from October 1918 until Aug. 8, 1919; and was discharged during demobilization on Aug. 11, 1919. The following year, the 1920 US Federal Census enumerated Fred, as a builder living on Park Avenue, Babylon.

The Post #94 executive committee included: Percy Ricketts, Frederick Bunce and George Field. Percy Ellsworth Ricketts (1897-1988) enlisted in the Navy on April 6, 1917. He first served in the US Naval Reserve Force (USNRF) at the 3rd Naval District; later transferred to the Naval Academy (Annapolis, MD). From the Academy, he was transferred to the Naval Submarine Base (New London, CT). Percy was discharged from the USNRF on June 7, 1918; however enlisted the next day into the US Navy. When he resigned from service he had received the rank of lieutenant ( Junior Grade). The 1930 US Federal Census enumerated Percy as a toy manufacturer living on George Street, Babylon.

Frederick “Fred” S. Bunce, Jr. (1893-1967), also of George Street, at the age of 24, served in Company H, 107th Inf ant r y, New Yor k National Guard until he was discharged. Fred, after arriving overseas May 9, 1818, was severely wounded on Sept. 29. He remained in Europe until July 17, 1919. Fred was discharged four days later, and had reached the rank of sergeant.

George Smith Field (1889-1943) entered service May 19, 1917, and served in the engineers ERC to July 9, 1917. From July 14, 1917, to April 26, 1919, he served overseas and was discharged May 6, 1919.

The fourth Suffolk County post to be organized was Huntington around Aug. 25, and three days later, the new Babylon Post would meet again. The issue of women in Post #94 seemed to be settled at the Babylon post level. At the Sept. 9 meeting, the Babylon Post #94 had 64 members, who had paid their yearly dues of $2, and another 30 that signified their intent to join. Four women had joined the post: Florence Dollard, Lillian H. Weeks, Louise A. Weeks and Margaret L. Stewart.

Florence Dollard (1886) according to the 1910 US Federal Census gave her occupation as a bookkeeper in a plumber’s store. Ten years later, she was a file clerk in a Navy Yard; however there is no evidence that she served in the military during the Great War.

Lillian Halbe Weeks (1890-1924) and Louise Alice Weeks (1894) were sisters living on Deer Park Avenue, Babylon. The 27-year-old Lillian enrolled in the military on Jan. 1, 1918 at the Recruiting Station (NYC) as a yeoman 3rd class. She was assigned to the Headquarters of the 3rd Naval District until Nov. 11, 1918, where she reached the rank of yeoman 2nd class. When Lillian was discharged on July 31, 1919, she was a yeoman 1st class. The 1920 US Federal Census enumerated Lillian, and Louise living on Paumanake Avenue, Babylon, and both were working as clerks at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

Margaret L. Stewart (1896) in 1920 was enumerated as the niece of Louise A. Sammis of Main Street, Babylon. Little else has been found!

Soon after the Babylon Post meeting on Sept. 16, the United States Congress officially recognized and chartered the American Legion as a national organization. Three days later on Sept. 19, it was announced in the Signal newspaper that on

Sept. 27, the first general gathering of Suffolk’s Veterans would meet in Babylon with Dr. Daniel W. Wynkoop, as organizer.

There were now 11 American Legion Posts: Babylon, Greenport, PatchogueRiverhead, Huntington, Bay Shore, Sag Harbor, Islip, East Setauket, Port Jefferson and Southampton.

The Babylon Post #94, the 1st Suffolk County American Legion organization, experienced success, as it continued to grow, and by Sept. 26, there were 110 paid members.

Part 2 will discuss as local veterans of the Great War settled back into their communities, veterans of color were becoming less optimistic, and invisible. They were met with post-war discrimination and segregation; however, in this environment, the Suffolk County American Legion movement continued to organize more local post for white returning veterans.

Sandi Brewster-walker is an independent historian, genealogist, freelance writer and business owner. She is the chair of the Board of Trustees and acting executive director of the Indigenous People Museum & Research Institute. She has served in President Bill Clinton’s Administration as deputy director of the Office of Communications at USDA. Winner of the Press Club of Long Island’s 2017 Media Award – 3rd Place for Narrative: Column. Readers can reach her in c/o the LI.Indiginous.people.museum@gmail.com.

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