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Remembering the war to end all wars: Middletown Area Historical Society museum plans display

By Dan Miller danmiller@pressandjournal.com
Posted 5/10/17

One hundred years ago, 25-year-old David McKee Wallace was among Middletown area residents who were sent to Europe after the United States entered the war to end all wars — World War I.

He …

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Remembering the war to end all wars: Middletown Area Historical Society museum plans display

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One hundred years ago, 25-year-old David McKee Wallace was among Middletown area residents who were sent to Europe after the United States entered the war to end all wars — World War I.

He lived in the 100 block of Nissley Street, and would be commissioned a lieutenant in the Army through the Reserve Officer Training Corps program in August 1917.

In September 1918, Wallace was among more than 1 million American soldiers who would be part of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, the final Allied offensive that would continue until the war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918.

He wasn’t there long. According to military records, Wallace was wounded in three places while fighting in the offensive in late September. He received gunshot wounds in both thighs and in the left calf.

Wallace was honorably discharged from Fort Dix in New Jersey in June 1919. He returned to Middletown, where he lived in the first block of Pine Street. He went on to become a prominent attorney in town.

We know the story of David McKee Wallace, and that of a number of other World War I veterans from the Middletown area, thanks largely to Brian and Kimberly Williams of Harrisburg.

Having uncovered the story of Wallace and others by spending hours combing through records, the two have brought new life to artifacts that will be on display at the Middletown Area Historical Society at 29 E. Main St., starting Saturday, May 20.

For example, you’ll be able to see the uniform that Wallace wore while serving in World War I; including his boots, his sword, helmet, gas mask, canteen, mess kit, and more.

The society hasn’t given the exhibit a formal name yet, but the theme is tied into the 100th anniversary of the United States entering World War I.

Technically, the formal date of the anniversary is April 6, 1917, when Congress approved a declaration of war against Germany.

But the anniversary is being observed with events throughout 2017, said Robert Hauser, a Middletown resident and society member who along with Brian and Kimberly Williams is playing a key role in putting the new exhibit together.

Hauser knew Brian Williams through their mutual involvement with the Civil Air Patrol at Harrisburg International Airport, and with the cemetery at Fort Indiantown Gap.

Long active in the Middletown historical society, Hauser came up with the idea for a new exhibit to showcase his own and the society’s offerings of military items.

At first, Hauser envisioned a display of uniforms and other related items, such as his own collection of canteens spanning the Civil War through present day. Then he asked for some help from the Williamses, and the exhibit snowballed into something much bigger and better.

Through the research done by the Williamses, the society is able to connect many of the items that will be part of the exhibit to the real-life stories of people from the Middletown area who actually served in the Great War, such as Wallace.

Another local World War I veteran whose story is told by the Williamses is that of James Weirich, who lived on Union Street.

Weirich was in the Army and played in a military band while serving in Europe during the war. (Editor's note: this story has been corrected to state he was in the Army and not the Marines) He performed before “the crowned heads of Europe,” but he was also in four battles and was wounded by the Germans in a gas attack, according to an article in the Aug. 27,1918 Harrisburg Telegraph newspaper that Brian and Kim dug up through their research.

The story will accompany the uniform that Weirich wore while playing in the band during World War I, which has been donated to the historical society.

Brian and Kimberly are both retired from careers in the tax field.

Kimberly’s interest in military history started from she and Brian buying letters and other items that they would find at Saturday’s Market and various flea markets.

“It kind of dominoed after that,” Kim said. “We’d pick up an artifact and we started researching it and it turned into all of these wonderful stories.”

“It’s very interesting to us,” said Brian. “We think it’s also very interesting for the people that are in the community to see where their relatives or where their families were during that time when they were enlisted into the service, and subsequently after.”

The research still takes a lot of time, but the Internet makes the documents more accessible than ever before. Kimberly found the old newspaper article about Weirich through Chronicling America, a site that is available through the Library of Congress.

Many of the details about soldiers such as Wallace and Weirich — dates, places, units, etc. — are gleaned from public documents and records that can also be accessed through the Internet, such as the form that was used to apply to the government for compensation and benefits related to an individual veteran’s military service.

“Many people don’t even realize they had relatives that served in World War I, whether it was on the home front or overseas,” Kimberly said. “Stuff gets passed down to nieces and nephews. They don’t care so they donate it to the historical society or they put it up for auction, which is where I get most of my stuff.”

While the exhibit will also include some items from World War II, Vietnam, and even some items from the present day, World War I is the focus.

Besides documents, uniforms and accessories, the exhibit will feature many different kinds of medals, including Middletown’s very own medal that leaders of the town awarded to World War I veterans from the borough.

There will be trench maps, and examples of “trench art” from the trenches of World War I that formed the front lines of so many bloody battles.

Soldiers on both sides of the conflict were known for taking spent shells and recycling them into things of beauty, like letter openers and flower vases.

Visitors to the exhibit can also try free samples of hard tack and “Johnny Cake” that Hauser said will come from his own “tried and true” cooking recipes.

The exhibit is to open Saturday, May 20, to coincide with the observance of Armed Forces Day. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

The military exhibit is to run throughout the summer. The museum will also continue its current exhibit on the history of Middletown Area School District.

The society museum is normally open to the public every Wednesday from 9 a.m. to noon. The society hopes to expand the days and hours that it is open over the summer, although this depends on the availability of volunteers.

For updates on the society and on when the museum will be open, visit the society on the web at www.middletownareahistoricalsociety.org.

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