INDIAN TOWNSHIP, Maine — Ninety-nine years after six young men volunteered to fight the Imperial German Army in World War I, their families on Sunday received the official recognition that the soldiers never did.
All six men were members of the Passamaquoddy Tribe and were either wounded or killed in Europe during what then was known as The Great War.
One of them, Charles Lola, was 22 years old when he was killed in the conflict. He later posthumously was awarded the Croix de Guerre medal by the French government for his valor in battle.
Moses Neptune, son of the tribe’s governor at the time, William Neptune, enlisted at the age of 19 and was killed the following year, one of the final soldiers cut down before the Armistice was signed in November 1918.
Samuel J. Dana did not lose his life in the war, but he did lose a leg. Dana, who later would serve as the tribe’s representative to the Maine Legislature, survived his wounds and returned home to the Passamaquoddy lands in eastern Washington County, as did George Stevens Sr., Henry Sockbeson and David Sopiel.
Despite their sacrifices, none of the men received any official recognition or honor during their lifetimes from the country that they served as members of the Army’s 103rd Infantry Regiment. Like all members of Indian tribes nationwide, they were not even considered U.S. citizens until 1924.
On Sunday, amid performances of traditional Passamaquoddy songs and dances, each man’s legacy got what was long overdue. More than 300 people were estimated to have attended the ceremony at the tribe’s community center.
The families of each veteran were presented by state officials with military service medals and lapel pins, a tri-folded American flag, a written commendation and, from the tribe, a decorated eagle feather.
Sopiel’s daughter, Patricia Taylor of Cutler, said Sunday that it is “spectacular” to have her father’s service finally officially recognized. He died nearly 50 years ago, in February 1967, she said.
“This is a wonderful day,” Taylor said. “It is something I never thought would ever happen.”
Taylor said her father had a veteran’s hat he would wear when he marched in Memorial Day parades, but that was the only time he drew attention to his service in World War I. He never spoke about his experience in the war, she said, or indicated that he should have received a medal for his service.
“He was not a person who talked about things like this,” Taylor said. “As a kid growing up, I never knew he was wounded. He never talked about it.”
William J. Nicholas Sr., the Passamaquoddy chief at Indian Township, said the ceremony Sunday was an emotional event for the tribe, especially for the families of the dead men.
“Obviously their tears were happy tears, but there was also pain in that because it took so long for this to happen,” Nicholas said about the soldier’s relatives. “Our veterans went and served in the war, and we couldn’t vote. [Passamaquoddys] weren’t recognized really as citizens of the United States, but yet we carried that and we fought for the country and fought for the people and fought for their rights.”
Tribal officials said a documentary being filmed by the Smithsonian Institute helped with getting their World War I veterans the recognition they earned. While working on a documentary on the war, the organization came across writings and dates carved into the walls of a cave in France, where Allied soldiers took shelter from German bombing raids.
Smithsonian officials traced some of the writing to the Passamaquoddy soldiers and then contacted Donald Soctomah, the tribe’s historian and a former tribal representative to the Legislature. More than two dozen young Passamaquoddy men had enlisted with the Canadian or American military to fight in the war, he told them.
The Smithsonian’s interest, Soctomah said Sunday, renewed the tribe’s efforts to get recognition for the six who were wounded or killed in battle. He said Smithsonian officials contacted the state Bureau of Veterans’ Services office to inquire about the status of the tribal World War I veterans.
“Families have always approached us about getting their grandfather or their father recognized, and we just couldn’t take it to the next step,” Soctomah said. “[The Smithsonian] made the extra effort and helped us.”
First Lt. Jonathan Bratten, command historian for the Maine National Guard, said Sunday that it is not unusual for decades to pass before military veterans receive medals and other documentation of their service. He said in recent years, the state has been providing medals to descendents of Civil War veterans to commemorate that conflict’s 150th anniversary.
Record-keeping was different 100 years ago, he said, and many veterans are reluctant to talk about their military service. Military historians consider World War I to be a “hidden” war, he said, because World War II started only 20 years later and diverted attention from the service of many World War I veterans, who had not yet become old men.
“The World War I generation just vanished,” Bratten said. “There was no fanfare.”
Bratten said that, with the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I coming up next April, he has been spending much of his time the past couple of years researching Maine’s involvement in that war. More than 1,000 Mainers died in World War I, he said, and those who weren’t killed endured some of the harshest battlefield conditions ever known.
“They were under fire for almost 200 days in 1918,” he said of the 103rd Infantry Regiment. “That’s artillery, that’s gas. They were being gassed constantly.”
The Passamquoddy Tribe has long known about the sacrifices its World War I veterans made, he said, and “now it’s time for the rest of us to remember and the state of Maine to remember, and the whole country.”
Taylor said that, after her father returned from the war, he lived at Pleasant Point, the other Passamaquoddy community near Eastport, and eked out a living by working seasonal jobs. He worked at a tuna canning plant in the summer, wove traditional baskets and picked potatoes in Aroostook County in the fall, she said.
“He did a lot of different jobs,” Taylor said. “[My parents] didn’t have a whole lot, but the reservation provided them with a house, with their wood for their heat. Other than that, they had to more or less fend for themselves, basically.”
She said her father lived out the rest of his life without receiving any veterans’ benefits.
“Nothing,” she said of the compensation he received for his service. “Not a thing.”
Nicholas, the tribal chief at Indian Township, said that many Passamaquoddys have served in the military over the past century and that the tribe plans to take a more active interest in making sure they get the recognition and assistance that they’ve earned. He said he himself has two children serving in the military, and it is important for them and other members to see that veterans are honored for their service.
He said that, either this fall or next spring, the tribe plans to erect its own veterans monument by the tribal offices at Indian Township.
“We kind of look at things as honoring our elders [and] honoring our past. [We’re] not looking so much for the injustices but making things right,” Nicholas said. “I’ve seen that [pride] in the [veterans’ families’] faces today. It’s pretty emotional.”