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New Londoners in World War I made the supreme sacrifice on land, at sea, in the air

Editor’s note: This story is drawn from Connecticut military records, the archives of The Day and several online sources. This is the second story in a two-part series.

Carl Stephen Newbury didn't know it, but he began preparing for his heroic wartime death at age 11, after he became one of New London's first Boy Scouts.

When Troop 1 was organized in 1910, Newbury was a charter member. He thrived in Scouting, absorbing its virtues, and the experience shaped the sailor he would become.

He once passed an endurance test by hiking to Norwich and back. It took 10 hours, and as soon as he returned, rather than rest, he set out on his paper route.

When the United States entered World War I, Newbury, then 18, put his preparation into action. On April 6, 1917, the day war was declared, he enlisted in the Coast Guard.

Newbury was one of hundreds of young men from New London who fought in the war, and among the 40 or so who lost their lives.

New Londoners died on land, at sea and in the air. They died of diseases and in accidents. They died over there and close to home. Here's what happened to some of them.

On the battlefield

Pvt. Mark Murphy was wounded in the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and lingered two days before he died. Pvt. Carl Librizzi disappeared in the chaos and was never found. Pvt. Edgar S. Geer was killed by fragments of an exploding shell in the Argonne Forest. He had joined the Army because the Navy wouldn't take him.

Maj. John Coleman Prince, the son of a New London dentist, had a similar experience. He attended the Naval Academy for two years but joined the Army in 1911 and served in the cavalry expedition that hunted Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.

In the closing days of the war, he found himself in the segregated 92nd Division of black troops and mostly white officers called the Buffalo Soldiers Division.

On Nov. 1, 1918, Prince led a raiding party over German lines in search of information. The party was fired on, and Prince was struck. He was captured and died two hours later.

Initially reported missing, he was confirmed killed in a telegram the war department sent to his parents two months later, after the joy of the armistice.

War in the air

Airplanes were the intriguing future of warfare, and several New Londoners were drawn to the romance of flying. Two died in the cockpit.

Lt. Walter F. Buck was so adept at stunt flying that the Army assigned him to teach other instructors. He trained 44 pilots to fly without an accident.

Buck wanted to enter combat, but on a flight at Kelly Field in San Antonio, Texas, he was testing a new plane when both wings fell off. He plunged 4,000 feet to his death. Sabotage was suspected.

Schuyler Lee, son of the pastor of the Second Congregational Church, left Phillips Academy Andover to enter the American Field Service. But driving a truck was not how he wanted to serve, so when he had a chance to join the Lafayette Flying Corps, a group of American pilots volunteering for France, he took it.

On Feb. 3, 1918, five French planes, including Lee's, encountered eight Germans. Though outnumbered, Lee and his comrades managed to shoot down three of the enemy, while losing one of their own.

"It is a totally new and unpleasant feeling to go out with a fellow and come back without him," Lee wrote a few days later.

When he landed, Lee found that his Spad had been struck by machine-gun fire in 20 places.

Two months later, he would not be so lucky. As he flew on patrol at the Somme, the motor of his Spad apparently failed, and he was last seen slowly descending behind the German lines, where the wreckage of his plane was later found.

Shortly afterward, his class at Phillips Andover graduated.

Peril on the sea

The fledgling Coast Guard, formed in 1915, saw some of the worst U.S. losses at sea, and a New Londoner was among the victims in each of the two deadliest incidents.

Lt. John F. McGourty was assigned to the cutter Tampa, one of six Coast Guard vessels operating overseas as part of the Navy.

On the night of Sept. 26, 1918, the Tampa sailed into the crosshairs of a German U-boat. A torpedo struck the cutter and sent it to the bottom with its entire crew. The 131 deaths were the Navy's largest combat loss of the war. McGourty's body was never recovered.

Less than two weeks earlier, the cutter Seneca, escorting a convoy to Gibraltar, went to the assistance of the British steamer Wellington, crippled by a torpedo but still afloat.

Twenty of the crew boarded the stricken ship to try to sail it into port. Among the first to volunteer for the mission was the former Boy Scout Carl Newbury, now a coxswain.

The boarding party got the Wellington underway, but when a storm developed overnight, a bulkhead gave out. The Seneca's crew was able to get the only lifeboat over the side with eight men. Newbury and the others were stranded on the Wellington until it sank.

Clinging to rafts and buoys, some survived the night in the water and were rescued, but Newbury and 10 others drowned.

Natural causes

Disease in wartime was just as efficient as bullets. Pvt. George Gurney died of an infection. Pvt. Howard Bestick had a bladder stone. Pfc. Earl Rathbun fell ill en route to France and died of pneumonia when he got there.

Richard Mansfield II was the son and namesake of a noted stage actor who spent his last years in New London and was himself a budding actor.

Mansfield's friend, Jack Morris Wright, had joined the war as a pilot and sent him lyrical letters about life at the front. More than once he urged his friend to join what he saw as a romantic adventure.

"Are you coming, then? Are you coming with me?" Wright wrote. "Or will you spend your years of youth and adventure in conventional America that any one can see at any time?"

What finally stirred Mansfield to join up was news of his friend's death in a crash. Determined to follow in Wright's footsteps, he signed up for training as a pilot. But after just weeks in the Army, he fell ill with spinal meningitis, and in a few days, he was gone.

The most fearsome disease of all was Spanish influenza, which erupted in one of history's greatest pandemics. New Londoners died of the flu in military camps from Massachusetts to Virginia, as well as at the submarine base in Groton and at New London's temporary naval hospital.

Among the victims were the city's only two female casualties: Yeomanette Cecelia Sweeney and Red Cross nurse Catherine McGuire.

Honoring the dead

After the war, New London unveiled a permanent honor roll board, cast in bronze, in the City Hall lobby. It contained the names of 1,600 who served.

"Our eyes note reverently, here and there, the golden star of those who gave their all," Mayor E. Frank Morgan noted at the 1921 dedication.

For most of the dead, a star would be posterity's only note of their sacrifice. But for a few, there would be posthumous honors.

When an American Legion post was established in the city, it was named for the highest-ranking New Londoner to die in the war. The John Coleman Prince Post was chartered less than a year after its namesake's death.

Two privates, Mark Murphy and Earl Rathbun, were similarly honored by New London's Veterans of Foreign Wars post.

Richard Mansfield was immortalized by Louis Comfort Tiffany, the stained-glass artist. A window at St. James Episcopal Church depicts Mansfield and his friend Jack Morris Wright standing before the Archangel Michael. A quote from Isaiah declares: "They shall mount up with wings as eagles."

For his part in downing three German planes, Schuyler Lee was awarded the Croix de Guerre by France. The citation notes that he "distinguished himself by his courage and his drive."

The Coast Guard memorialized the loss of the Tampa by naming ships for its officers. The cutter McGourty was commissioned in New London in 1919. John McGourty also received a much-belated Purple Heart in 1999.

Carl Newbury received the Navy Cross, the service's second-highest decoration for valor. His old Boy Scout troop remembered him as well. In 1933, it presented the Coast Guard Academy with a memorial tablet, paid for dime by dime.

At the dedication, Fletcher W. Brown, his commander on the mission to save the Wellington, gave an eyewitness account of Newbury's death, with details not in the official record.

After the Wellington sank, those still aboard spent three hours in the heaving sea, clinging to improvised life rafts made from hatch covers. When a destroyer arrived, Newbury swam toward it. But every time a line was thrown to him, the sea carried him out of reach.

With several of his shipmates struggling nearby, Newbury called out his last words just before he slipped beneath the surface:

"Never mind me. Save the others."

j.ruddy@theday.com

———

©2014 The Day (New London, Conn.) Distributed by MCT Information Services

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