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Documenting the First Modern War 100 Years Ago

Sturtevant Read 1917By Darroch Greer

In 2007, a friend of mine from college called me after seeing a photograph of his grandfather on a cover of a book about World War One aviation. He asked me how to make a documentary. Ron King is the grandson of First Yale Unit member John Vorys (Yale 1918, ten-term congressman from Ohio), and his grandfather was sitting next to six classmates in Palm Beach Florida on the cover of a book called The Millionaires' Unit by Marc Wortman (Public Affairs, 2006). The photo was taken in April 1917, and the Yale students had left school to train as pilots in more hospitable weather ten days before the United States declared war on Germany. The Yale Unit became the founding squadron of the U.S. Navy Air Reserve.

Having done most of my documentary work in 19th century American history, I didn't have a strong frame of reference for the Great War. It wasn't touched on at all in secondary school, and my college degree had been in fine arts. Ron attended a talk by the book's author at the Yale Club in Manhattan, and it seemed there might be some unique photos in private family collections. The story was a good one: young, dynamic personalities tackling a new and dangerous technology, running off to war at a time when it seemed romantic.

Several questions raised themselves immediately: how important were these young men to the war effort and to naval aviation in particular? What part did naval aviation play in the War? What can we claim as the Unit's legitimate accomplishments, and how can those accomplishments be communicated in a dramatic and accurate way? Is there enough footage and photos to cover the story? And, how can we pay for what looks to be an ambitious film?


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Contributions of any size will assist the United States World War One Centennial Commission in carrying out its prime missions of educating about, honoring, and commemorating those Americans who served and gave their lives in the military services during the First World War, as well as those who served in other vital capacities as the nation armed, equipped, trained, transported, and supported America's fighting forces during the conflict. Click the "Donate" button below to make a donation to the U.S. Foundation for the Commemoration of the World Wars, the Commission's official fundraising organization.

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Pershing Park site for Memorial approved by Congress, President

The World War One Centennial Commission announces that, with the President’s signature on December 20th, 2014 of the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, H.R. 4435, the United States government has officially approved redevelopment of Pershing Park in Washington, D.C., designating it as the National World War One Memorial. The U.S. Congress and U.S. Senate approved the legislation last week, and sent it to the White House on December 12th.

Pershing Park, located on Pennsylvania Avenue one block from the White House in front of the Willard Hotel, currently contains a statue of General John J. Pershing, leader of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in World War One.


Monuments and memorials
to be registered, revitalized

WASHINGTON, DC -- Across the nation, thousands of monuments and memorials to America's World War One efforts stand in city squares, cemeteries, parks, and public buildings.
The World War One Centennial Commission will partner with Saving Hallowed Ground, the American Battle Monuments Commission, the World War One Memorial Inventory Project, and other organizations to identify and record all these monuments.

The Commission will encourage local communities and organizations to perform conservation and preservation services to the monuments themselves, and engage school students, Scouts, and communities in researching and learning about the history of their monuments and about the stories behind the names inscribed on these Living History Memorials, to remind citizens of their meaning and the great deeds they memorialize.


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Lusitania commemoration events in NYC and DC

On Thursday, May 7th, 2015, the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission hosted two commemorative events to honor the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania in 1915.

In New York City, at 10 a.m. EDT, there was a wreath-laying ceremony at Pier A in Battery Park, with honored guests and descendants of Lusitania passengers. The location is symbolic, as it houses the first dedicated memorial to World War One in the United States. Further, the location overlooks the Statue of Liberty, and is not far from Pier 54, where the RMS Lusitania departed on her final voyage one hundred years ago.

 Lusitania Panel cutline 450 05072015In Washington, DC, at 6:30 p.m. EDT, the Commission hosted a panel discussion with noted historians at the National Press Club. The panel included: John Maxwell Hamilton from Louisiana State University, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Professor Richard Striner from Washington College, an expert on President Wilson; and RADM Samuel Cox (USN, Retired), the Director of the U.S. Navy History and Heritage Command. The panel was moderated by noted national correspondent Gil Klein. Discussion focused on the wartime role of Lusitania, the worldwide reaction to her tragedy, and the impact of Lusitania's sinking on public opinion in the United States.  Click here for more information on the Washington, DC event.

For more information on the Lusitania, her sinking, and how that tragedy affected the war, click here.

Commissioner O'Connell has family link to Lusitania tragedy

New York -- World War One Centennial Commissioner Dr. Libby O’Connell had always heard that an ancestor of hers died when the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland May 7, 1915.

Her father taught European History so she was raised on stories from the continent, including the sinking of the Lusitania. Still, she found it difficult to believe that a relative of hers had been aboard the ill-fated ship, since she could never verify the story.

Libby OConnell caption2As the 100th anniversary of the historic sinking approached, O’Connell, now Chief Historian for the History Channel, was finally able to piece together the fascinating details of her great-great grandmother’s life.

Catherine Sterrit was a singer and pianist in Pennsylvania when she divorced her first husband and remarried. It was this second marriage to Cameron Willey, unknown to O’Connell during her initial archives search, which finally led her to discover the truth.

Wiley200When her second marriage also ended in divorce—an almost unheard of circumstance in the early part of the 20th century--Catherine Willey left the country. “Like so many other women of her time who had the means, she left America and went to Paris,” O’Connell said.

At the outbreak of war in Europe, Willey returned to the United States to visit family and raise money for those in need. “She collected money and jewelry and planned to use the proceeds to set up a home for penniless war widows,” O’Connell said.

Despite German warnings that any ship flying the flag of Great Britain would be sunk upon entering the war zone, Willey was one of more than 1,900 passengers aboard the Lusitania when it sailed from New York’s Pier 54 on May 1, 1915.

The Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo, killing more than 1,100 passengers and crew, including Catherine Willey.

The sinking of the Lusitania was “one of the pivotal moments of World War I,” O’Connell said. “The United States was neutral at the time, but the sinking brought us much closer to joining the war.” Still, it would be nearly two years before the U.S. officially entered the conflict.

Over There, and Overlooked

The centennial of the First World War is slipping past unnoticed in the United States, despite its persistent legacy

reinforcementsDavid Frum
Defense One

In a couple of months, we'll mark the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, a history-bending event that will probably engage Americans not very much more than any of the other commemorations of the First World War over the past seven months. The United States lost some 115,000 soldiers in the First World War, more than in Vietnam, Korea, and all other post-1945 conflicts combined. Yet the war's impress on the American mind—once seemingly so deep and indelible—has faded. The war men once called "the Great" has receded almost beyond memory in this country that did so much to win it.

It's not so elsewhere, of course. I was in a business meeting in a Toronto office building on November 11. At 11 a.m., a buzzer sounded and the intercom announced the two-minute silence that still marks the hour of the armistice in the countries of the former British empire. The participants looked uncertainly at each other. Wasn't it kind of...hokey to stop and stand? And yet, pause and stand they did, until the intercom buzzed again.


Commission project will feature African American experience in Great War

369th experience snipWASHINGTON, December 21, 2014 – The World War One Centennial Commission announces that it has undertaken a memorandum of understanding with S&D Consulting Services to produce The 369th Experience, a series of public performances and education programs depicting the American, African American, and French experience in World War I through the eyes of the 369th U.S. Infantry Regiment, also known as the "Harlem Hellfighters."

The production is an official project of the Commission in line with its charge to educate the people of the United States about the history of World War One, the United States' involvement in that war, and the war's effects on the remainder of the 20th century, and to commemorate and honor the participation of the United States and its citizens in the war.