UD tells stories of WWI fallen
Class researches history behind Memorial Hall names
When military groups, politicians, students and faculty descended on the University of Delaware campus in 1925 for the dedication of Memorial Hall, UD officials unveiled the “Book of the Dead” that would be displayed in the building’s lobby.
Each page of the book would list the name of a Delawarean killed in World War I and a brief biography of the service member, officials said at the time.
The Book of the Dead has remained a focal point of Memorial Hall, and each morning, ROTC members ceremoniously turn one page of the book. However, the book was never completed and lists only the names of the fallen. The details of their lives were lost to history.
Now, some 90 years later, a group of UD students has taken the first step toward fulfilling UD’s original promise. Over the last semester, English professor Bernard McKenna’s class has combed through military records, old newspapers and other resources to find information on 35 of the 270 people honored in Memorial Hall.
“What we have today is a start,” George Miller, associate chair of the Department of English, said. “I doubt we’ll ever be able to fulfill the original promise, but it would be a fitting tribute to those who served and gave up their lives, to compile the life histories of those who sacrificed so much.”
McKenna said he assigned each of his senior English capstone students several names from the book and tasked them with finding as many details about the service members as possible.
“They were to look until they struck gold,” he said. “It took dozens of hours of work for one name.”
Not only did students find out biographical details of the fallen, some were also able to find information on neighbors and classmates with whom the soldiers likely grew up.
“You could recreate a sense of life in that community,” McKenna said. “It’s such a rich life story to be told.”
On May 10, the students publicly shared those stories during a memorial event at the Roselle Center for the Arts. Each student gave a brief presentation on one service member as a screen behind them displayed photos and newspaper clippings.
Student Nicole Lund talked about Lawrence Witsil, a UD alumnus from Wilmington who was drafted into the Army and died from an illness just five weeks before the war ended.
Lund painted a picture of a well-liked electrical engineering student known for his intellect and his penchant for whistling as he walked around campus.
“It’s easy to imagine just another carefree 21-yearold walking down The Green after class, greeting friends and soaking up the warm sunshine,” Lund said.
Her classmate Linda Ellis said researching Thomas Amory had a profound impact on her.
“This past semester has been awe-inspiring and the one above all that will stay in my memory for the rest of my life,” she said.
A Wilmington native, Amory was injured in France and after spending three months in a hospital was given the option of taking a non-combat role. However, he insisted on continuing to fight and was later killed in battle. His sergeant called him “the best officer God ever made,” Ellis said.
She added that when she began researching Amory, she had almost immediate success.
“Instantly, the information started to spit out, and photos started to appear,” she recalled.
It was the photos of the 25-year-old soldier that were most poignant.
“Those eyes just grabbed me,” Ellis said. “There was a maturity in those eyes years beyond his age.”
Ellis, who went back to school to finish her degree after retiring from a career as a legal administrator, said she plans to continue researching Amory even after she graduates.
“My search doesn’t end now,” she said.
Student R.J. Popio was able to visit the Wilmington home where his research subject, Andrew Conlin, lived.
“It’s interesting to bring life back to these men who lived and died 100 years ago,” said Popio, who is retired from the United States Air Force. “I can appreciate their sacrifice. They gave all.”
McKenna said he plans to combine the students’ work into a binder that will be available at Memorial Hall. He also hopes to continue the project with a future class, noting there are 235 names that still need to be researched. He also hopes to locate some of the fallen soldiers’ descendants and share the research with them.
The project has already had a huge impact on Newark resident Barbara Morris, who was able to learn new information about her grandfather, James Tull Reed.
After hearing about the project, Morris contacted McKenna with the hopes that one of the students had unearthed documents about Reed. While Reed’s name had not been assigned to a student, McKenna was able to provide her with some details and invited her to share them during Tuesday’s presentation.
Reed died from the flu while training at Fort Meade in Maryland. His death came just four weeks after Morris’ mother was born and shortly before the war ended.
Morris said she knew very little about her grandfather, but through the research learned that his train ride from Wilmington to Fort Meade took him near where she lives in Newark.
“While we never crossed in time, I feel like we’ve crossed in space,” she said. “I feel very differently when I hear the train now.”
ROTC cadets salute after turning a page in the Book of the Dead in Memorial Hall. An English class spent the past semester researching the lives of some of the 270 fallen soldiers listed in the book.