Search of Doughboy’s past stirs memories of war years
Who was Thomas E. McKee?
Like the mysterious John Gault in Ayn Rand’s best-selling novel, “Atlas Shrugged,” McKee was an enigma whose name raises more questions than it answers.
A World War I infantryman — in those days they were called “Doughboys” — McKee had an American Legion post named after him when he was the first U.S. soldier from Monessen to be killed in France.
Today, Thomas McKee American Legion Post 28 in Monessen has 334 members, less than a third of its all-time membership high of 1,200 veterans. Because of its declining membership, the post doesn’t have a home. If you polled the surviving members, mainly veterans of World War II and Korea, few could tell you much about the young soldier for whom their post was named.
But one man in Monessen, former District Justice John Billy, knows the story behind the honored infantryman. District 10 justice for 22 years, Billy served in the Army Air Force from 1945-47 and was part of the Army of Occupation in Okinawa.
Billy, now 76, researched the story behind McKee and came up with some fascinating details, getting his information from the dusty files of a number of area newspapers.
According to the newspaper accounts, McKee, son of James and Emma McKee, who lived at Chestnut and Beatrice streets, enlisted July 28, 1917, and “was one of the first Monessen boys to leave.”
After training at Camp Hancock in Augusta, Ga., McKee joined Company B, 111th Infantry. In May, the 25-year-old soldier, who had been employed by Pittsburgh Steel Co., sailed for France on a troop ship.
A story published in the Monessen Daily Independent (forerunner to The Valley Independent) reported McKee joined his unit and “is feeling fine, but is anxious to be at the front.”
The first casualty list released by the U.S. War Department gave his family some unsettling news. McKee was missing in action and unaccounted for, the government reported. This news came to his family shortly after they received a card dated May 15, 1918, from the Monessen soldier stating he was well and would write soon.
McKee’s letter never came.
In September, a telegram from the War Department gave his family the stunning news that their son and brother had been killed in action on July 1 — the first Monessen casualty of World War I.
A story in the Monessen newspaper reported, “Thomas McKee was among the first to answer his country’s call when war broke out. There not being any military organization in this city, he went to Pittsburgh and enlisted in the old 18th Regiment of the Pennsylvania National Guard.” (The regiment was reorganized and later became the 111th Infantry, 28th Division.)
McKee had been assigned to an observation post with the French and sent to the front lines at Hill 204 near Chateau Thierry when the German Army launched its drive to take Paris. He died when a machine gun bullet struck him on the morning of July 1.
The Monessen newspaper reported his body was buried in the American cemetery near Chateau Thierry where it remained until orders were issued for its removal to be shipped to America.
After McKee’s burial in Grandview Cemetery, along Leeds Avenue in Monessen, the Monessen American Legion Post was formed and members voted to name their post after him. The Rev. Graham, former pastor of the local Methodist church and first chaplain of the post, conducted the services.
“Following the services, the body was placed on the caisson, drawn by four dapple gray horses and escorted by the soldiers on foot, was taken to the Grandview Cemetery where, following short services, a salute by the firing squad and taps by the bugler, it was lowered to its last resting place,” the newspaper reported. “Six former buddies of the young man, who served with him in France, acted as pallbearers.”
The history of the Legion post in Monessen dates back to 1919. According to John (Jack) Snyder, a former U.S. Marine who saw action on Iwo Jima, Dr. D.C. Farquhar petitioned World War I veterans to apply for a charter on an American Legion Post in Monessen.
Snyder, who lives in Belle Vernon, said, “The first elected post commander was William J. Huston, who served from 1920-21.” Members met in upstairs rooms off Donner Avenue while trying to increase its membership rolls.
Snyder was honorably discharged from the Marines as a staff sergeant after serving in the 4th Marine Division from 1943-45. He and his wife, Eleanore, have been married 53 years and have four children and four grandchildren.
A retired office manager for a construction company, Snyder has served as adjutant for the post since 1957. He has been a post member for 59 years.
In the early years of the post, members raised money by holding dinners, variety shows and other fund-raising activities. Wives of the Legionnaires former American Legion Ladies Auxiliary Unit 28 in 1922, with Rose Wilson serving as the organization’s first president.
“We sponsored a Boy Scout Troop and a first-class drum and bugle corps,” Snyder wrote in a history of the post. “Our variety shows were staged at the Star and Olympia theaters and were produced by Dr. Lawrence Lee, a charter member of Post 28.”
In the early 1940s, he said, the post bought a building at the corner of Fourth Street and Donner Avenue, a former borough building and police station.
“World War II created the impetus to enlarge our post membership and returning GIs began joining the American Legion,” he said. “Joseph Pushkar was the first World War II veteran to be elected post commander in 1945.”
Anticipating the return of thousands of eligible servicemen, post members remodeled the post home. In 1946, Dr. Lawrence C. Lee was elected post commander and that year more than 1,200 veterans became dues-paying members.
In 1966, Snyder said the post members voted to sell the building at Fourth and Donner and purchased the Park Casino at 1701 Grand Blvd. for $325,000. Members became active in a law and order program in the late 1960s, working closely with the Monessen Police Department.
Until its membership went into decline because of the deaths and aging of World War II and Korean War veterans, the post played host to many special events, including a celebration of veterans who had 50 continuous years of membership on April 21, 1996.
Probably the post’s most ambitious project was to raise nearly $300,000 to erect the impressive Monessen War Veterans Memorial. Under the leadership of Commander Leonard Babinski, the memorial was dedicated on Oct. 20, 2001.
It saddens Snyder that military men and women seem to be losing interest in becoming active in veterans’ organizations.
He graduated from high school in 1942 and after turning 18, enlisted in the Marines, like a lot of young men from the Mon Valley. After his discharge in 1946, he was recalled when the Korean Conflict broke out. It was November 1950, and he and his new bride had been married less than eight weeks.
Snyder served stateside at Camp Lejeune, N.C., with the 2nd Amphibious Recon Battalion and never got to Korea. It was totally unlike his experience on Iwo Jima.
On Feb. 19, 1945, more than 60,000 Marines landed at Iwo Jima, eight square miles of rock, volcanic ash and black sand. There was no vegetation on the island, which had just one mountain above sea level — 600-foot Mt. Serabachi.
One of the Marines was the 18-year-old high school graduate from Monessen. Young Snyder was assigned to a machine gun unit with the 4th Marine Division.
“On the day I arrived, I replaced Robert Yannitto from Monessen, a high school football star who I knew from high school,” Snyder remembered. “His unit was getting beat up pretty bad on the beach, and our company replaced his. He worked at the steel mill in Allenport.”
Snyder’s company of 250 men was decimated by the well-entrenched 25,000 Japanese soldiers on the island.
“Most of the guys in our company were killed or wounded,” he said. “Only 12 of us escaped being wounded — I was one of the 12.”
The enemy was holed up in deep caves in the mountain and throughout the island. Before the Marines landed, the United States threw all its military might against the Japanese, bombarding Iwo Jima for 72 consecutive days.
“There was also five days of pre-invasion bombing,” he recalled. “We didn’t think anybody or anything could remain alive on the island. We figured we’d be off in two days or the island would sink.”
They were wrong.
The Marines outnumbered the Japanese five to one — 100,000 Marines against 22,000 Japanese soldiers. But the enemy fought back with a vengeance that nobody could have anticipated.
Today Snyder is compiling a collection of World War II and Thomas McKee Post 28 photos, newspaper clips and memorabilia which he intends to donate to the Monessen Public Library.
“I have kept all the records I collected during my days as adjutant in my home over the years,” he said. “It’s time somebody else took custody of them.”
“The veterans from World War II had a sense of commitment and dedication,” Snyder said. “Today it seems that nobody had time for those things. We managed to raise our families and serve, but today that seems to be a thing of the past”
Like other Monessen veterans, Art Trilli helped raise funds to build the War Memorial. He served in the 8th Air Force as an airplane mechanic during World War II and was stationed in England prior to the invasion known as D Day.
“Our job was to keep the P-47s and P-51 (fighter planes) flying,” he said. “I was part of the invasion of Europe and flew six sorties on D Day to protect our ground forces. We flew out of England and destroyed anything German that moved on the ground.”
Trilli’s 374th Fighter Squadron also participated in the Battle of the Bulge, strafing enemy troops and flying to protect the Allied bombers. Now 83, the Monessen resident owned a water conditioning company before retiring.
Like the others veterans interviewed, he is disturbed at the lack of patriotism in young people who served in the military.
“It’s a condition that exists and I don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “Veterans of World War II and Korea were very dedicated to this country. Now they are in their 70s and 80s and there just aren’t that many of us left anymore.”