Miami Co. historical group marks WWI centennial with exhibits, monuments

Harriett Louise Carfrae was 38 years old when she shipped out to serve on the front lines of World War I as a Red Cross nurse.

Over the next year, the Peru native served at Base Hospital Unit 21 located in Rouen, France, where she tended to tens of thousands of soldiers who sustained agonizing injuries fighting on the battlefields of one of the most deadly conflicts in history.

Carfrae’s valorous service earned her a Victory Medal from the British Government in 1920 – a rare honor for a woman to receive. One year later, she died in Peru from complications of an injury likely sustained during a mustard-gas attack in Europe.

Carfrae has now become the poster-child of a new effort to track down World War I veterans from Miami County. That effort is being spearheaded by a new organization called Miami County Indiana Worth Remembering.

Jerry Jenkins, the organization’s projects coordinator, said the group received an official endorsement from the state earlier this year to research the local history related to the centennial of the war, which the U.S. entered in April 1917 until Armistice Day on Nov. 11, 1918.

Now, members are moving full-steam ahead planning a slew of projects to commemorate the county’s men and woman who contributed to the war effort as part of a national campaign through the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, which was created by Congress in 2013.

But for Jenkins, that history is personal. He said his grandfather served in the war, and he grew up listening to his grandpa’s stories about his time in the service.

“There are a lot people like me who are alive and have a connection to the war,” Jenkins said. “But once we pass away, that’s it. There will be no immediate connection to people who lived from 1917 to 1919. So we’re in a rush to do this.”

The Miami County Museum kicked off the centennial earlier this year when it opened a new exhibit highlighting the stories and artifacts from that time. The display includes uniforms, posters, song sheets and military paraphernalia such as canteens, gas masks and hats.

But the main push now is to track down the thousands of men and woman from all over the county who served in World War I. Shirley Griffin, an archivist for the museum who is working with the new group, said that could total more than 3,000 people.

So far, she and other volunteer researchers have documented more than 1,200 local veterans by sifting through old government records and newspaper archives, trying to gather as much information as possible about each person.

“Creating this search for our local Doughboys has become all-consuming for us,” Griffin said.

Once the group has tracked down as many service men and women as possible, organizers plan to install a display inside the Miami County courthouse listing the name of every veteran by township. The display will have small holes beside each name in which family and friends can place a Veterans of Foreign Wars poppy to commemorate their loved one.

But for volunteer researcher Regine Brindle, one of the most fascinating parts of the county’s World War I history is the thousands of woman who enlisted in the Red Cross to help in the war effort from home.

She said documents show more than 8,500 Miami County women registered with the organization, which received its first charter in 1900 from the federal government to assist members of the U.S. armed forces.

The first assignment handed down to the local Red Cross members during World War I was to knit 300 socks to ship out to the state’s former Fort Benjamin Harrison. The women ended up knitting and shipping out 1,700 pairs.

“They literally organized the women into an army here,” Brindle said. “It’s really incredible.”

Now, Miami County Indiana Worth Remembering plans to permanently honor those women by installing a memorial marker on the courthouse lawn beside a Doughboy statue that was erected there in 1930.

The plaque will be inscribed with a quote from Gen. John J. Pershing, who served as the commander of the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front during the war.

It reads: “This war is being fought by women. It is women who suffer and lend courage to us. Women are the ones to whom honor will be due when this war is over, and they will deserve honor for their aid in establishing democracy.”

Brindle, who moved from Belgium to the U.S. in the 1970s, said researching the county’s men and women who served has been an eye opening experience. She said in Europe, the common perception is Americans had a surplus of food and goods and didn’t suffer much during World War I.

But after learning about the impact the bloody conflict had on local residents, Brindle said, she knows now that Miami County residents suffered during the war.

And the effort now underway to commemorate that history is critical in remembering their sacrifice, she said.

“To learn how much money came just out of Miami County and the sacrifice that was made in food, in fuel, clothes and time – it’s astonishing,” Brindle said.

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