100 years after he fought in World War I, a family heirloom preserves his words
KENNEBUNK, Maine — The old cloth-covered book hardly shows its age — at 100, it betrays only the most modest of frayed edges. But to the family of the 24-year-old soldier who recorded history with a pencil as he marched across France, the little red volume is a priceless heirloom.
Because on its small lined pages, Joe Rodier, dead now a long time, lives again.
He’s training at Fort Dix. He’s crossing the Atlantic crammed into the bowels of a troop ship. He’s sick. He’s cold. He’s going to Mass on Easter Sunday, celebrating with a five-egg breakfast. And, then, 100 years ago today, the 24-year-old Worcester corporal awakes to his eighth month on the front lines in France.
He is jubilant.
World War I, the ghastly global conflict that aimed to make the world “safe for democracy’’ and killed some 9 million combatants and 7 million civilians, is over.
“Another day of days,’’ Rodier scrawled on page 315 of his diary, the entry for Nov. 11, 1918. “Armistice signed with Germany to take effect at 11 a.m. this date. Great manifestations. Town lighted up at night. Everybody drunk, even to the dog. Moonlight, cool night & not a shot heard.’’
Corporal Rodier would come home to Worcester in 1919. He married the love of his life, Mary Margaret Keniry, the girl who had waited for him. They had eight children, who remember their dad as the gentle guy who hoisted the American flag at dawn and folded it into a neat triangle at dusk.
“We always had a flag,’’ said his daughter, Ruth Gilmartin, now 86, the family’s sixth child. “His family was his greatest joy. And he was very patriotic.’’
The seeds of that gentle patriotism were planted early in the boy who grew up on Alvarado Avenue in Worcester, across from Lake Quinsigamond.
An excellent swimmer, he became the coxswain for his English High School rowing team, and later enrolled at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
But he never finished.
Instead, as war clouds gathered over Europe, he enlisted in the Army in October 1917 and wore the uniform of his country to fight alongside Britain, France, Russia, and Italy to conquer Germany, the Ottoman Empire, and the Central Powers in horrific trench warfare that would shape the rest of his life.
He also carefully chronicled his remarkable journey from Massachusetts to a land he could scarcely have imagined. The pages of his diary hold the echoes of a tale that the now-vanished corps of doughboys from Maine to Missouri, from the Carolinas to the coast of California, would have found familiar.
Here is his entry for Jan. 4, 1918, from Fort Dix, where he was training to go to war.
“Too cold to drill. New squad assigned to me. Beds all changed around. Lots of sore heads about appointments. New (sergeant) started to boss me and I told him where to get off, as I was a (corporal) + he was only acting (sergeant).
On a Sunday in mid-January, he missed Mass and instead treated himself to a visit to Pennsylvania and the site of the first official world’s fair, the Centennial International Exhibition of 1876.
“Saw many things of interest including ancient relics + furniture + ivory watches. Wonderful place. Phila. An easy city to find one’s way around. Three good feeds.’’
As the new year found its footing, so did the new soldier from Worcester.
He was making friends at camp. He scrupulously attended Catholic Mass on Sundays. And, as snow fell on Jan. 22, what lay ahead suddenly became real.
“Received gas masks + given instructions how to use same. Very queer things. . . . Not allowed to leave barracks. Stocked up with chocolate + well fixed for tobacco + corn cobs.’’
What follows in the diary are accounts of endless drilling, barracks hijinks, long letters home, and snowball fights. By early February, Rodier was on edge, waiting for orders, marching for miles in severe weather.
On Feb. 6, a warfare lecture left him shaken.
“Hike for an hour + saw the British tank ‘Brittanica’ turned over on its side out of commission. Came back + attended the best talk I had ever heard on conditions in Eng., France + Belgium. Many of the boys in tears at the close.’’
By late-February, he was aboard a crammed transport ship taking him to the war.
“Sharp look out for subs,’’ he wrote on March 3. “Torpedoe (sic) crossed our bow in the dark. Another sub nearly ran into us in the dark. The worst night over. Pretty sunrise. Good dinner for a change.’’
By mid-March, Rodier was in France, 50 miles from the front. He wrote about walking 2 miles to church in the rain. The sounds of the guns on the front pound in the near distance. Seeing the dentist. The letters from his future wife and from his mother. And by mid-April, the war all around him.
“Back to work,’’ he wrote on April 22. “Good eats. Good weather. Good health. Boys from 102nd + 104th Inf came back from trenches all shot up. Many wild tales.’’
In May, he got sick from a batch of bad beef stew. In June, he had his confession heard by a local French priest.
Then on July 1, he saw the war up close for the first time.
“Arrived at Nancy at 4:30 P.M. where I saw the 1st actual firing + first demolished buildings of the war. Very beautiful scenery all the way through the Mts. Of the Vosges. Anti-aircraft shooting all around. Very few Americans.”
Two weeks later, he began to see harbingers of victory.
“More allied success along entire front. Train after train (every 15 minutes) of Allied troops moving to the section of big doings thro here. Day + night. All kinds of supplies etc. Turning point of War.’’
Marbled into his remarkable firsthand account of The Great War are pieces of delightful detail that place the reader of his century-old words in the trench beside him, in the bunk next door in his barracks, at the morning mail call that he clearly loved.
On Aug. 14, he stood guard duty and watched a wonderful moon rise. And on Friday, Sept. 13, he wrote a paragraph for the ages.
“American offense started here at 4:30 a.m. Counted 34 Allied planes in sky at one time,’’ he writes, adding in a bold-faced scrawl: “Red Sox win World’s Series.’’
When peace arrived, Corporal Rodier took to a typewriter to write a letter home to his sister Ruth. That letter from France, alongside his diary, has been preserved for a family that still cherishes his words.
The war ended one day after his 24th birthday.
“It is the wildest of wild nights,’’ he wrote on Nov. 11, 1918, “and the noisiest night before the 4th in Worcester cannot be compared to what is going on here right now. It is real hard to believe that it is the same world that I have been living in since July 1st. There is a big chateau situated on the side of the hill here and which is decorated with jack-o’-lanterns and is a picture from here.
“Well, imagine the greatest joy possible and you will have your imagination probably half high enough. . . . We will have more liberty and no more danger.’’
His letter to his sister was signed this way: “Your loving and living brother, Joe.’’
Like most doughboys, Joe Rodier never forgot his days marching across the fields of France.
He came home to marry the girl who waited for him.
Joe and Mary Margaret Keniry settled in Oxford and produced that large family that became the centerpiece of his life.
Rodier would make his living as an investigator for the Registry of Motor Vehicles, working in registry offices in Worcester and Pittsfield. The old soldier — who served on his local school committee and chaired his town’s civil defense organization — was the registry’s supervisory inspector for disabled war veterans.
When he died of heart failure in 1948, he was just 53 years old.
His old diary sat the other day on the dining room table of his granddaughter, Anne Rodier, who keeps the little red book — a product of Perkins & Butler, an old book and stationery firm from Worcester — in a safe and dry place.
She is 66. She never met her grandfather. And yet, through the words preserved from a war zone 100 years ago, she knows him. And today she speaks of him in the present tense.
“He’s very proud to be an American,’’ she told me last week at her dining room table, where Joe Rodier’s face and words lay. “He’s very proud of his service. He’s very proud of his family.
“You can see through some of these records that he felt a real obligation to give back and serve. We are so grateful to him for having served. He made the world safer. I know that sounds hokey.
“But what would have happened if we didn’t have all these young men go and serve?’’