Review Press Reporter / Thursday, April 16, 1998
Special Centennial Supplement “Bronxville 1898-1998”
by Marilynn Wood Hill
“They say ‘Our deaths are not ours they are yours;
they will mean what you make them.’”
from The Young Dead Soldiers
When poet Archibald MacLeish hinted at the ambivalence of war in these lines from his poem on young soldiers, he broached an uncertainty that at first glance seems to have had little to do with Bronxville’s involvement in the majority of the wars of the last century. Few sentiments have been more pervasive in Bronxville’s past than “patriotism,” and few events have assumed as important a role in dividing the village’s hundred years into segments of local history as have the five wars that occurred in this period.
Bronxville’s incorporation as a village in 1896 was achieved in the midst of the country’s entry into war. One of the first villagers to enlist in the Spanish-American conflict was attorney Charles Francis Bates, a key leader in the incorporation effort who expeditiously led Bronxville through the break with Eastchester in order to quickly join the war. A handful of other favorite sons followed Bates, including Bertrand Burtnett, grandson of the founding Masterton family. The pride and certainty with which the village sent its young into the 1898 conflict, and the speed and success with which the U.S. ended the Spanish-American clash, set the tone for the community’s involvement in subsequent wars.
When war broke out in Europe in 1914, local residents intently followed its progress. In 1916, in an effort to help the Allies, the American Red Cross was expanded and President Wilson appointed Anna Lawrence Bisland to organize and head a Bronxville chapter. Before the U.S. had even entered the war, this group had made and shipped more than 100,000 dressings to Europe. This “can do” spirit was typical of the residents of the young square-mile village whose population had grown to almost ten times its 1898 size by the end of two decades. With a certain naiveté, villagers eagerly and impatiently awaited a declaration of war with Germany. In March 1917, a Loyal League with 100 charter members was formed to “assist the country with preparedness.” This organization worked hand-in-glove with the village government, and the president of the village served simultaneously as president of the Loyal League. One of the League’s first projects was the formation of the Home Defense Guard, military drill squads that could be instantly mobilized if called upon. Members were issued whistles and police clubs, and by the end of March they were conducting drills several times a week. This activity complemented the military training of male students at Concordia and in local high schools that was required by New York law.
Villagers’ war enthusiasm seemed almost unbounded. At the end of March, still prior to the American entry into the war, Lawrence Hospital offered its facility for treating the undeclared war’s not-yet wounded and sick, and a week before the country finally became a combatant, the village’s League telegraphed a resolution to Congress requesting that the U.S. declare war against Germany. On April 6, 1917, as soon as news was received that the U.S. was in the war, the village president issued a proclamation asking Bronxville citizens to “preserve law and order.” Villagers intensified their war-mobilization enthusiasm as citizens of all ages joined in the effort. Every local organization or institution, including the school, contributed in some capacity such as selling liberty bonds, planting victory gardens, speaking on behalf of the war effort, sending clothes and medical supplies abroad, or driving in the local women’s ambulance corps.
One of Bronxville’s earliest enlisted soldiers and its first casualty of war was also an impatient patriot who didn’t want to wait for the U.S. to become a belligerent. In 1917, Leonard Morange left Yale for Canada where he joined the Royal Flying Corps; he was killed a year later on a flight training mission in England. In all, 233 local men and 4 women served in the armed forces overseas, and every village organization participated in some form on the home front, an impressive record of service and patriotism.
The community’s “noble sacrifices,” both in human and material terms, were commemorated soon after the armistice with pageantry and parades. Traditionally the village had held patriotic parades on July 4th, but after the war, in 1921, members of the newly formed Leonard Morange American Legion added a parade to the commemorative services held on Memorial Day, a national holiday established in 1866. By the mid-1920s, the July 4th festivities gave way to a larger Memorial Day event, and this special week-end of patriotic tradition has survived to the present day.
World War II
Although the country and some local residents debated the viability of isolationism prior to World War II, this movement did not have a significant impact on the majority of Bronxville’s citizenry. Again, pre-war volunteer work such as “Bundles for Britain” and other Red Cross projects, and the patriotic endeavors of the last war, conditioned villagers to join readily into a community-wide war effort in a conflict where right and wrong seemed clearly identifiable. A large contingent of Bronxville’s sons and some of her daughters once more joined the several branches of the military service overseas.
At home the war effort was as intense as in the previous war. Citizens planted victory gardens, used ration stamps for certain foods and fuel, and conducted war loan and scrap metal drives that topped all requested quotas. Victory House, the old Reformed Church parsonage next door to the new village hall, served as headquarters for the Office of Civil Protection that coordinated war efforts, and several blocks to the east, off Pondfield Road, Oakledge, the home of Mary Leggett Purdy, was turned over to the Red Cross as its headquarters. All of the work and training of that organization was centered in the Red Cross House and there, as in other Bronxville homes, troops from the several services were entertained on special leave or holidays.
In this war, as in the last, military drills were held; the roof of the Concordia College Administration Building, the highest point in the area, was manned with spotters looking for enemy aircraft; and night time blackouts and air raid drills were observed.
To late-twentieth-century residents, the notion of organizing to protect the community from a foreign invasion seems overly cautious, but to the citizens in the two world wars, the threat was very real. Villagers of all ages believed in the importance of volunteering in the community and personally doing without certain conveniences as a means of supporting the war cause – it was their patriotic privilege as well as their duty. And, in both wars a special camaraderie characterized the community as social, economic, or political differences were subjugated to the unity of a community-wide war effort. Returning servicemen and women were clearly patriotic heroes, and parades and ceremonies celebrated both their military efforts and the community’s pride in their contributions or sacrifices.
Another Kind of War
When war broke out with Korea in 1950 there was no rush to join. The “police action,” as it was first called, did not capture the public’s imagination as had previous wars. There is little record of Bronxville’s involvement in this war – most young village men between the ages of 18 and 25 took advantage of the college draft deferment. Local Legionnaires remember the conflict as “not a very popular war”; a limited war and a peace without victory did not elicit the same patriotic participation or celebration in the community that earlier wars had inspired.
If the Korean War left little trace on the minds of villagers, the Vietnam War seared its imprint into the local memory. After the escalation of the war in 1965, Bronxville, like the rest of the nation, became increasingly troubled about American’s policy in Southeast Asia. In May 1968, the deaths of two young Bronxville soldiers galvanized local anti-war sentiment and eventually placed the name of Bronxville on the national scene in the anti-war movement. The parents of Mike Ransom, one of the two soldiers, became articulate spokespersons for the anti-war cause by sharing their son’s story and letters – his feelings of patriotism as well as his ambivalence about the war. Stating that they had “faced the painful truth that our son did indeed die in vain; his life was wasted, and nothing we do, now or ever, can alter that,” both of the Ransoms took leadership roles in the national amnesty movement, testifying on Congress in 1972. Bob Ransom, an attorney, became well-known as a draft law counselor, and Louise Ransom played a role in the Democratic National Convention of 1976 by nominating a war resister as vice president.
Although some villagers disagreed with the Ransoms’ and others’ methods in opposing the Vietnam War, many residents supported active protest. Not since the two World Wars had there been so much activity on the Bronxville home front: high school students formed discussion groups and anti-war speakers’ bureaus, Sarah Lawrence students joined the National Strike for Peace, and mothers organized Mothers’ Day anti-war marches. Protests continued until the mid-1970s when the country’s longest war finally ended.
The veterans of Vietnam, unlike those of previous wars, did not return home to patriotic parades and celebrations – America needed time to respond to the challenge of MacLeish’s poem and find some meaning in its losses. Two decades later that meaning still eludes definition for many.
Although no longer viewed as a glorification of previous war efforts, Memorial Day parades continue Bronxville’s annual tradition of celebrating itself as a community while commemorating its past and its patriotism – a patriotism that will never again seem as simple or as certain as before Vietnam.