SUMMIT, NJ — It’s taken 100 years but a pair of locals will finally get their due.
It was near Le Chatelet, France on Sept. 29, 1918, when Sgt. Alan Eggers and Cpl. Thomas O’Shea of Summit, and Sgt. John Latham, of Rutherford, found themselves separated from their platoon.
The Battle of San Quentin Canal was a pivotal battle in World War I, the first assault on the Hindenburg line, which was the heavily fortified border between Belgium and Germany.
After hearing a call for help from an American tank that was disabled about 30 yards away, the three soldiers crawled away from their shelter, through heavy machine gun and mortar fire. In the midst of their crawl, O’Shea was mortally wounded, but Eggers and Latham proceeded to the tank to rescue a wounded officer, and also brought two wounded soldiers to shelter in a nearby trench.
The pair, undeterred, returned to the tank to dismount a Hotchkiss machine gun and brought it back to the trench. They then used it to fend off German soldiers until they were able to return to American lines under the cover of darkness.
The three soldiers belonged to the 107th Regiment, which suffered the most casualties in a single day by any U.S. regiment during the war. The armistice that ended the “War to End All Wars” came just 43 days after the battle.
For their heroism during this battle, the three men were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military decoration. The Summit Common Council approved the installation of a monument in the memorial section of the Village Green to honor the three at their Oct 16 meeting. The monument, projected to cost about $7,000, is a project of Summit’s American Legion Post No. 322, and will be funded through private donations. The post hopes to have it in place by Memorial Day 2019.
After reading about the events that took place during the Battle of San Quentin Canal, Post Commander Henry Bassman researched the three soldiers and was surprised to find that there weren’t many people in town who knew about the war heroes.
“I knew right away that we had to do something to honor these men,” said Bassman, who has been commander since 2013, in an Oct. 19 phone interview with LocalSource. “We had to make sure that these two men were never forgotten.”
The proposed 4-foot-tall triangular stone pillar will be placed on the site to face the memorial for those killed during World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and will feature a plaque with a citation telling the men’s story.
“One of the big reasons we want the plaque is so that this will never be forgotten in the future,” Bassman added.
Along with plans to build the monument, Post No. 322 will use some of the money raised to maintain other war memorials in Summit.
“The current World War II memorial is deteriorating from the weather to the point where you can barely see a few names and that’s unacceptable,” Bassman said.
After the council unanimously approved the proposal, a couple of members expressed the importance of adding the monument to the other war memorials on the Village Green.
“I would argue that this was the most consequential conflict in history and it’s fading for so many people,” Councilman Mike McTernan said. “It’s just so impressive that we have not only one, but two Medal of Honor-winners from town.”
Common Council President David Naidu said it’s the community’s responsibility to honor veterans.
“We have a sacred obligation to the people who served for us and who died in defense of this country. We need to take care and honor them,” Naidu said after the approval vote. “Therefore, if it turns out that we don’t raise enough, I want you to come back here and we can talk about it. I don’t think there’s a greater need than making sure that people understand that we need to honor those who sacrificed for this country.”
Bassman couldn’t have been happier with the council’s support.
“David Naidu’s response was so moving and it was so chilling,” he said. “I’m sure that every veteran who saw how genuine and emotional his reaction was had to have been moved.”
The Other Fellow First Foundation, a Summit charity with a primary mission of helping “New Jersey families in distress,” has pledged to match donations up to $3,500, and Bassman was pleased to say that the first donation had already come from Summit High School.
“It was so moving to get that donation from the Summit High School Veterans Appreciation Club,” he said. “It’s great to see the younger generation stepping up and taking action.”