An unassuming hero Roxbury soldier fought alongside Sgt. York, but seldom spoke of the epic World War I battle RA SPECIAL REPORT BY GEORGE KRIMSKY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN
They are called “The Other 16” — American soldiers who fought valiantly in a bloody battle in World War I, but were shunted aside by the legend of one man’s heroism. It all happened nearly nine decades ago, but their families still want history corrected. Now, time is running out. Afew people left around Roxbury still remember Percy Beardsley, an easygoing farmer with a taste for hard cider and an aversion to talking about his combat experiences in World War I. “He never said a word about the war,” said Joseph O’Brien, 93, who knew Beardsley well. “If you tried to start it, he’d get up and walk away.” Percy’s father, Nathan, once said he learned more from overhearing an interview that his son reluctantly gave to a reporter than he ever heard from him. The young veteran kept locked in a drawer a citation from the U.S. Army he received on May 4, 1919. It read: “During the attack on Hill 180 west of Chatel Chehery, Mechanic Beardsley with a detachment from his company surprised and captured a number of Germans who were delivering a flanking fire on the attacking line.” That citation alone disputes the oft-repeated claim that Sgt. Alvin C. York of Tennessee “single-handedly” captured the 132 Germans taken prisoner, not to mention killing another 25, on that fateful day in October 1918 in the Argonne Forest of France. Six other Americans, besides York and Beardsley, were decorated for heroism in that battle. Beardsley kept quiet about his role in the war until 1927, eight years after returning home, when he was in- SeeWA R ,PageB5 Second of two parts WAR: Beardsley was a crack shot Continued from Page One terviewed by the Waterbury Republican, which had been tipped that a soldier from Roxbury also had been a hero in York’s platoon. In the interview published May 29, 1927, Beardsley was reported to be tight-lipped about his wartime experiences but revealed that during the Argonne battle he was armed with an automatic rifle (a French Chauchat). Beardsley said he emptied his weapon several times “and was sure he accounted for at least a few of the 25 dead,” the newspaper reported. Beardsley stressed in the interview that the victory was due to the efforts of the whole platoon, including its leader, Sgt. Bernard J. Early of New Haven. The paper said it was Beardsley who “rescued Sgt. Early under fire after the latter was shot down … He gave his own overcoat to wrap around the sergeant and with another of the detachment carried him back when the detail retired with their prisoners.” Sure shot The highly decorated York had been touted as a sure shot from years of shooting squirrels and wild turkey in the Tennessee mountains, but Beardsley had a lot of his own practice in the Roxbury woods. “I’d back Percy’s shooting against York’s any time,” his father told the paper. One of Beardsley’s Roxbury friends was playwright Arthur Miller, who would visit the nearby farm with actress Marilyn Monroe, then his wife, in the late 1950s. They would sample the Beardsleys’ famous cider, squeezed from their apple harvest. Father and son always kept about 20 barrels in their cellar and welcomed guests to them. During one of those visits, Miller asked Beardsley how it could have been possible that York or any one man could have captured all those Germans, as it was portrayed in the 1941 movie “Sergeant York.” The ex-soldier broke into a wry smile and said “he must have surrounded them.” The Beardsleys had lived in Roxbury for seven generations, going back to the 18th century when this town was part of Woodbury. Percy, who died childless at the age of 77, was the last in town. But kin remember him. “He was the best uncle a kid could have, gentle and kind, and a lot of jokes over the cider barrel,” Nathan Beardsley, 79, said on a visit to Roxbury last weekend with his son, Don. They had driven down from Massachusetts to see the grave and the old farmhouse. In the process, they happened on a treasure. The current owner of the Beardsley home on Good Hill Road, Alice Shaber, heard they were coming and unearthed a stash of old photos that had been abandoned in a drawer. “Hey, that’s my grandfather,” exulted Don, 37, pointing to a fading print. He was referring to Percy’s younger brother, Paul, who moved to Massachusetts as a young man. “He worshipped his older brother,” Nathan said softly. One of the enduring Roxbury stories was the sight every summer of old Nate Beardsley and his son Percy walking their herd of prize Devon oxen to the Danbury Fair, some 20 miles away. The old man didn’t believe in the internal combustion engine, they say. J. Lawrence Pond, now 71, whose family farm on the Woodbury line abutted the Beardsley place, remembered one morning as a teen examining a busted fence that separated both properties with Percy. “It looks like a two-jug job to me,” Percy said, rubbing his chin. Pond doesn’t know exactly how powerful that cider was, but he has a vague memory of spending the night in jail with his brother after the fencemending. And Percy? “Oh, he went back to doing his chores.” Elinor Hurlbut, Roxbury’s former town clerk, remembered Percy as a “very good looking young man” who was regarded as a good catch until he finally gave up bachelorhood at the age of 57. His bride, a weekender from New York, Louise Lingsch, was “a real raised-pinkie over the teacup type,” recalled nephew Nate. Local tongues wagged when she brought her sister along on the honeymoon. When Percy died in 1968, friends and admirers from throughout the area packed First Congregational Church for his funeral. He is buried in the family plot in RoxburyCemetery under a simple flat stone bearing the inscription: “World War I, Percy P. Beardsley, Mechanic, Co. G 328th Regiment.” Visit www.rep-am.com to comment on this story.
90th anniversary of battle to be feted
York fan organizing French party
BY GEORGE KRIMSKY REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN Plans for the 90th anniversary of the World War I battle in which soldiers from New England fought side-byside with Sgt. Alvin York will focus almost entirely on the soldier from Tennessee, without any identification of the other 16 members of his patrol. The Republican-American has learned that planning for this October’s celebration in France has been organized by a fervent supporter of the one-man version of the battle, in cooperation with groups from Tennessee. Among plans hatched for the anniversary by Lt. Col. Douglas Mastriano is the commemoration of the “Sergeant York Historic Trail” at the site of the battle on Oct. 8, 1918, showing “the important locations related to York’s heroism, whose actions saved his battalion from destruction and resulted in the German retreat from the ArgonneForest.” Families of the other soldiers regard this summary as both insulting and inaccurate. “We will do everything we can to make sure the true story is told and these men are recognized,” said Robert V. D’Angelo Jr., speaking for the New England families. Exactly what that will be has not yet been decided, but some family members are planning to attend the ceremonies in France. Even some of York’s strongest boosters agree the legend has gotten out of hand. “I fully agree that the other soldiers who fought with York deserve recognition which has been denied them for far too long,” Michael Birdwell, a Tennessee professor who is curator of the York papers, told The Republican American. In addition to the trail and a plaque, Mastriano has organized a parachute jump by members of the 82nd Airborne Division, based in Germany, where Mastriano serves as an intelligence officer attached to NATO. The 82nd is the successor to the victorious “All American” Division of the American Expeditionary Force that included the 17-man patrol. Mastriano has written two books about York and has claimed to have found the exact site of the battle that eluded military historians for eight decades. He also operates a faith-based Web site called the “Sergeant York Patriotic Foundation” with an online souvenir store. While the New England families have just begun comparing notes and organizing their strategy for the anniversary, organizations in Tennessee have long been working with the French to ensure that their native son remains the main focus. York’s hometown of Pall Mall, Tenn., established a sister city relationship last year with Chatel Chehery, where the battle took place. The state of Tennessee lists York as one of its most famous citizens, alongside Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, Al Gore and Reese Witherspoon. Alain Rickal, the mayor of Chatel Chehery, told the Republican- American in a telephone interview he was “very pleased with the plans so far for the anniversary, but we welcome any suggestions for including others in the celebrations.”