Lowell and the World War

Earlier today the Greater Lowell Veterans’ Council held its Memorial Day Service at the Lowell Memorial Auditorium. Besides the many veterans groups in attendance, the following elected officials were also there: Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, State Senator Eileen Donoghue, State Representatives Tom Golden and Dave Nangle, Mayor Patrick Murphy and City Councilors Marty Lorrey, Bill Martin, Joe Mendonca and Rita Mercier. The Veterans’ Council had asked me to say a few words about Lowell and World War One. Here’s what I had to say:

On November 11, 1921, the various Veterans groups in the city gathered at City Hall to commemorate Armistice Day. The ceremony included Civil War veterans in their 70s, Spanish American War veterans in their 40s, and veterans of the World War in their 20s and 30s. They called it only “the World War” back in 1921 because it was inconceivable that there would ever be another. Also included in the ceremony were elected officials, clergy, a military band and children representing each school in the city. The ceremony began exactly at noon with two minutes of silence that was so thoroughly observed that even the city’s phone service was shut down for those 120 seconds.

After the speeches and songs, all in attendance formed up and paraded down Merrimack Street to the intersection of Bridge, Prescott and Merrimack, a spot then known as Merrimack Square. The veterans’ purpose that day was to dedicate that square to Army Lieutenant Paul T Kearney who was killed in action in France on October 3, 1918 at age 27. The newspaper article announcing Kearney’s death called him “one of the most popular young men in the city and [that] his host of friends would be deeply grieved and shocked to learn of his untimely death.”

Paul Kearney was born in Lowell in 1891. His parents were both born in Ireland with his mother coming to America in 1868 and his father arriving here in 1878. Paul was the fourth of five brothers. According to the 1900 census, his father worked as a machinist and the family rented an apartment at 316 Market Street. The 1910 census indicates that Paul’s mother had since passed away but that his father had bought a house at 142 Third Street where the father and brothers all lived.

After graduating from Lowell High School, Paul worked as a clerk in a local freight office but he also took some business courses at Tufts University. This helped him obtain a job as an accountant for the H P Hood Milk Company in Boston. He was working there in 1917 when he registered for the draft. He was soon inducted into the service and attended officer candidate school in Plattsburg, New York and was among the first American troops to deploy to France where he saw almost continuous combat until his death in the fall of 1918.

Details of Paul Kearney’s assignment and the circumstances of his death remain elusive, but a German Army intelligence report based on interrogations of captured American soldiers had this to say about men like Paul Kearney and the nearly 7000 others from Lowell who served during the World War:

Only a few of the troops are of pure American origin. The majority are of European parentage but these semi-Americans fully feel themselves to be true-born sons of their country . . . The individual soldiers are very good. They are healthy, vigorous and physically well developed who at present lack only necessary training to make them redoubtable opponents . . . The attacks by the Americans have been carried out with dash and recklessness. The effect of our firearms did not check the advance of their infantry. The nerves of the Americans are still unshakable . . .

I share the story of Paul Kearney with you today because I suspect that of the hundreds and perhaps even thousands of people who pass through Kearney Square each day, few if any know why it is called Kearney Square; that it is named for a young man from Lowell who died in battle in France nearly one hundred years ago.

Similarly, few people know that Kittredge Park up at Andover and Nesmith Streets is named for Captain Paul Kittredge who was killed in action in France in November 1918 or that Cupples Square in the Highlands is named for Lt Lorne Cupples who died of wounds in France in October 1918 or that Gallagher Square in South Lowell is named for Private William Gallagher who also died of wounds in France in October 1918. There are dozens of other examples throughout the city. While the names of these places remain familiar the stories of the men for whom these places are named have faded from our collective memory.

I think Lowell is a great place to live. But I also think that one way to measure the quality of a community is in the way that community remembers its residents who have made the supreme sacrifice in our nation’s defense. In two short years we will reach the one hundredth anniversary of the start of World War One. I urge everyone individually and collectively to make an effort before the arrival of that anniversary to revive the stories of those from Lowell who lost their lives during that war and to share those stories with our fellow citizens. If we all do that, we will make a great city even better.

2 Responses to Lowell and the World War

  1. Daniel Patrick Murphy says:

    From Back Central Street

    Branches crack in the midnight storm.
    Red and yellow skylines are maps snapping
    Directions like a Captain in World War II
    Whose body rained from the sky, blazing fragments
    Of fireworks, pieces of a prism, miniature rainbows
    in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
    No one heard you hiss-hissing into the water
    When each part of you touched down.

    Your father had eyes filled and overflowing
    With pieces of you; stormy, unruly as the seas,
    Catching all the parts and wanting to complete
    The map that led to nowhere, to the soundless explosion
    In the Pacific Ocean on a night where
    No one heard you gliding in all your silence
    Or saw you falling like a comet, then snuffed out.

    –Daniel Patrick Murphy