Irish America April / May 2015

Page 54

IA.WW1_IA Template 3/5/15 8:52 PM Page 54

Irish Soldiers in Jersey Boys:

America entered World War One on April 6th, 1917, and though the execution of the leaders of the Easter Rising in Dublin in 1916 greatly angered the influential Irish-American community on America’s East Coast, many Irish and Irish-Americans saw it as their duty to enlist. Megan Smolenyak looks at the great state of New Jersey and profiles several of those soldiers, including her grandfather, who heard the call of duty.


ABOVE: James Vincent and Beatrice Agnes (Reynolds) Shields. ABOVE RIGHT: Overseas cap of James V. Shields with Signal Corps insignia. RIGHT: Beatrice Agnes Reynolds’s engagement ring.

e was Pop-Pop to me, and I remembered him as the gentle, older fellow who would give me a penny for gum when we went on a stroll to the neighborhood drug store. Other times, he would sit on the bottom step leading up to the bedrooms in his Chatham, New Jersey split level – the driver accepting my pretend fare as I climbed the stairs behind him to take a seat in our imaginary city bus. But we lost him when I was only four, so the life of James Vincent Shields remained a mystery to me until I became a genealogist in the sixth grade and started pestering my nana for memories of the past. And even then, it would take some time to learn that he had served in World War I. Born in Jersey City in 1898 to Irish immigrants David and Margaret (McKaig) Shields, James was the ninth of


eleven children. In 1923, he married Beatrice Agnes Reynolds after she accepted his proposal with a specially made ring engraved with shamrocks. They had three daughters – Peg, Bea, and Seton – stretched across a 15-year period, and Pop-Pop supported the family by commuting into New York to work for assorted banks on Wall Street. Before embarking on family life, though, James was a soldier in World War I. He answered the call of duty in April 1917, three weeks after President Wilson received the declaration of war he had requested from Congress. Most of his military records were destroyed in a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center, but we know that he was assigned to the Signal Corps and shipped overseas on June 19, 1918, remaining in France until May of 1919. Compared to many, he came through relatively unscathed. I recall whispers of his having been gassed and jokes about a minor leg injury from tripping over barbed wire, but like so many men of his time he kept his war stories to himself. Perhaps the only flash of insight we have is from a newsletter that Irving Bank, his employer at the time, published with letters from servicemen who worked for them. In his usual understated way, James wrote: [W]e knew the German guns would begin. We had gone only about fifty yards when one shell went flying over our heads and landed about 100 yards from us. Did we walk faster? I should say so.

My family was lucky. James V. Shields came back alive. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here to write these words, and it was in seeking to learn more about my grandfather’s military service that I discovered a database offered by the New Jersey State Archives: World War I Deaths: Descriptive Cards and Photographs.1 I combed through individual profiles of some of the 3,427 men from New Jersey who sacrificed their lives in WWI, and decided that their stories need to be heard. To that end, I selected and researched several of them and would like to