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WWI Photo Connects Local Family to World History

Restored photograph hints at life for World War I era soldiers.

Their eyes piercing through the camera, the men pictured in a historic photograph of a World War I era artillery unit probably had little idea of what to expect as they posed for a group portrait in Fort Dix, N.J. back in 1917. 

The photograph was the subject of a local research effort after a Hyattsville framing and photo restoration outfit  

The man who brought in the photograph is Paul Howe, of Colmar Manor. One of the men in the photograph is his great-great grandfather, Paul M. Howe. 

Howe said that the photograph has been in his family since it was taken. Passed down through the generations, it came into Howe's possession after his father died. 

Howe remembers the photograph from his childhood, when he was fascinated by the panoramic group portrait. 

"I was struck by how direct the gazes were," said Howe in an interview. "Where did they all come from? How did they come into that unit? What it must have felt like to travel overseas to a war back then."

Howe family lore holds that the great grandfather was an outspoken man, perhaps too outspoken for the military. 

"He had a reputation for disagreeing with his superior officers and telling them that," said Howe. "He liked to tell them how things should be run."

Howe knows very little of his great grandfather's time in war, though there are sources which outline the history of the battalion, including a 193-page account of the unit's time written in 1920 by William McCarthy.

The memoir is surprisingly light-hearted, considering the difficulty the battalion faced during the war. There are also sections describing how the unit interacted with African-American soldiers from the "Harlem Hellfighters" 369th Infantry, the first African-American regiment to see action in World War I. 

The 309th was supposed to have been issued automobiles to pull their equipment, but once in France they were only issued horses and mules. Their armament frequently changed, and they were involved in some of the biggest conflicts of the war. 

Most of the men in the 309th came from New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The unit was created in the fall of 1917 to beef up U.S. forces preparing to head overseas to fight. The unit was trained at Fort Dix in New Jersey. By spring of the next year, the unit was headed to France. 

World War I was a brutal conflict unlike anything the world had seen before. A small amount of that brutality visited the 309th when it went to France. During the conflict, 15 soldiers of the 309th lost their lives, the vast majority to disease. Only one was killed in action. Four others died of wounds sustained in action. The remaining 10 died of pneumonia. 

Another 53 members of the unit were wounded in action. They would return home suffering the after effects of gunshot wounds, shrapnel, mustard gas. 

The 309th Artillery, part of the 78th Infantry Division, participated in a number of major offensives, including the 1918 St. Mihiel offensive, which saw allied forces attack along 40 miles of the Western Front in September 1918. The unit was also involved in the Meuse-Argonne offensive. 

Battery D, the one to which Howe's great-grandfather belonged, was forced to cease firing after four hours of bombardment during the St. Mihiel offensive when they ran out of powder charges.

The unit had been in action for 75 days when news of the armistice reached them, according to McArthur's memoir. At the news of the end of the war, they were received warmly by the locals who showered them with cigarettes and wine. 

Afterwards, the unit returned to Ford Dix where service members received their last paychecks of the war. 

Howe's great-grandfather, who rose to the rank of lieutenant, returned to his hometown of Rochester, N.Y. after the war. He became a surveyor and helped survey canals in the Rochester area. He later became involved in real estate.

Howe, now in possession of the restored photograph, is pleased with the result. He'll now use the restored image to show friends and family a bit of his ancestral history. The original photograph will be kept in acid free-paper as a precious memento  of one family's connection to world history.

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