Sto Lat: 100 Years of Polish Independence and the End of World War I

The Polish flag

“Sto lat” means 100 years in Polish and many Polish people will be celebrating the anniversary of the Armistice that ended World War I this weekend.

Sunday (11/11) marks the 100th anniversary of WWI , and with a special resonance for Polish people. One of Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points, self-determination for small nations, meant Poland would re-emerge again as an independent nation after 123 years of being swallowed up by Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia.

100 years ago, Greenpoint had a huge Polish community, which sent many of its young men to fight in the Great War. Many of those local Polish lads did not come home. One of the fallen has always intrigued me. Frank Baliszewski, who lived in my house at 2 Clifford Place, died on October 4, 1918 from wounds he suffered in battle in France. I know little else about him, but I have often wondered about Baliszewski. His name still stands on a monument outside his parish church, St. Stanislaw Kostka (607 Humboldt St.).

It was not only Polish soldiers who fell in the Great War, 150 local men lost their lives in the war and many more were wounded, including the two McVeigh brothers from Haussmann Street who died within a day of each other in different parts of France.
The war stirred a huge wave of local patriotism. 29 year old Pete McGuinness capitalized on it by becoming the leader of the local war effort. Without WWI, Pete McGuinness never would have risen to become the “boss of Greenpoint” and its most famous citizen. He skillfully used the patriotism the war aroused to demonstrate his leadership skills and the patriotic organization that he formed during the war helped him grasp political power. In 1917, when the United States entered the war, he started the “The Greenpoint Patriotic League” (formerly located at 138 Nassau Ave.) and astutely presented himself as Greenpoint’s most ardent patriot.

During the war, local draftees marched off together for basic training. Whenever a batch of Greenpoint boys left, they received a heroic send-off by McGuinness and his partisans, carrying the banners of McGuinness’ organizations, along with music by the Full Military Brass Band of Professor William J. Connolly, a musician, who was one of McGuinness’s most important political allies. McGuinness often borrowed a white horse from Orr’s Lumberyard, where he worked and rode regally at the head of the farewell parade. McGuinness said of his farewell parades, “Lets send ‘em off with a smile,” and he certainly did.

McGuinness also used the Patriotic League to attack the ineffective local political machine. McGuinness claimed that Democratic Party’s district leader, James McQuade, was doing little to boost the morale of Greenpoint’s soldiers. He ordered his followers to canvass the neighborhood for money to buy presents for the men going off to war. Naturally, this was a popular cause and merchants and other Greenpointers gave generously. McGuinness presented each draftee with a bon voyage package containing food, cigarettes, soap, razor blades and an inspirational leaflet by McGuinness himself. The Patriotic League even continued sending soldiers packages in France and many grateful soldiers wrote letters home thanking the Patriotic League, casting McGuinness’ work in a positive light.

Many a morning the citizens of Greenpoint were awakened by the brass notes from Connolly’s band and the sound of marching feet as the local inductees paraded off to war. The parade route led down Manhattan Avenue, then over the bridge to the train station in Long Island City. Hundreds of flag-waving citizens would come out to enjoy the spectacle, and McGuinness gained greatly in stature.

After the War, McGuinness helped the returning doughboys find jobs and many of the grateful veterans helped elect him as the local Alderman in 1919. The huge loss of local lives also demanded a fitting monument, and McGuinness led the efforts to build one.

Greenpoint War Memorial (NYC Parks)

He helped fundraise for the striking bronze winged victory figure in McGolrick Park, which was created by Carl Augustus Heber (1875–1956) and dates to 1923. The statue depicts a female allegorical figure, holding aloft a modified laurel, the symbol of victory, and in her right hand supporting a large palm frond, symbol of peace. The granite pedestal is inscribed with the names of where local soldiers fought in France. The elegant statue is an enduring tribute to all the local men who died in the Great War and the inscription on the front reads:

TO THE LIVING AND THE / DEAD HEROES OF / GREENPOINT / WHO FAUGHT IN THE / WORLD WAR BECAUSE / THEY LOVED AMERICA / REVERED ITS IDEALS / UNDER GOD AND / SUPPORTED ITS INSTITUTIONS / AND GAVE THEIR ALL THAT / OUR GOVERNMENT SHALL NOT / PERISH FROM THE EARTH

Greenpoint War Memorial (NYC Parks)

If you are interested in what it was like to be a Greenpoint soldier in the Great War, then I recommend you read Greenpoint Doughboy by former Navy officer and pilot Pete McHale who researched one of his own relatives who fought and died in New York’s 69th Regiment in France. The product of years of research, McHale’s story tells the story of his great-uncle John McKay. It also tells the story of how McKay was buried in France, but his family fought to have the soldier’s body brought home to Calvary Cemetery. The book is the perfect way to recall those who fought and died in the war we honor on Veterans Day.

About Geoff Cobb

Geoffrey Cobb is a brooklyn high school history teacher and writer of the blog historicgreenpoint.wordpress.com. He has lived in Greenpoint for over twenty years and is the author of a history of the area Greenpoint Brooklyn's Forgotten Past.

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