TIME TO REFLECT
Area resident’s grandfathers served in WWI, which ended 100 years ago today
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. >> Charles Wheeler Jr. can trace his family’s military heritage back to the Revolution when an ancestor named Josiah Whitney was a colonel in the 2nd Massachusetts Militia.
But today, his thoughts are with both of his grandfathers who served during World War I, the “War to End All Wars,” which ended exactly 100 years ago on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month – Nov. 11, 1918.
Wheeler’s paternal grandfather, Lt. Thomas B. Wheeler commanded the 309th Machine Gun Battalion of the 78th Division in France, while his maternal grandfather, Major F. Marvin Callan, commanded Company A of the 10th Infantry Regiment.
“It’s pride and family tradition,” said Wheeler, a Saratoga Springs resident, Vietnam veteran and third-generation army lieutenant. “Having had the privilege of knowing them is even greater.”
He owns a large collection of Thomas B. Wheeler’s World War I equipment such as the boots, helmet, field pack and map case he used while serving on the front lines. There’s also a variety of medals he earned including the French Croix de Guerre, awarded for valorous service, and poignant memories contained in detailed personal diaries.
In one entry, dated Feb. 3, 1919, Thomas B. Wheeler recorded what it felt like to learn about the birth of his first son. The war had ended three months earlier, but his outfit was still overseas and wouldn’t return home until May 1919.
“It’s great to be called a father,” he wrote. “I’m so happy I don’t know what to do. I go to bed tonight happy and dreaming of my family.”
Such joy was a far cry from the horrors of trench warfare he faced during the war, which claimed 2 million lives on both sides of the conflict, plus another 4 million wounded. Thomas B. Wheeler was a gas attack victim, which contributed to his passing in 1957, at age 67.
In 1919, Thomas B. Wheeler cofounded Albany’s first American Legion post.
The Legion, currently celebrating its 100th anniversary, was founded a year earlier on March 15, 1918 at the American Club in Paris, France, by members of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Both before and after the war, Thomas B. Wheeler was an officer at APW Paper Company in Albany, which his grandfather, Seth Wheeler, had founded in 1871.
Thomas B. Wheeler married Marjorie Whitney.
Beginning in 1950, after APW Paper Company was sold, he ran W.M. Whitney & Company, the largest and oldest department store in Albany, until his passing. It was a large five-story building, a block deep, on North Pearl Street.
The Wheelers lived on the former Whitney estate in Loudonville, just south of Siena College. As a child, Charles Wheeler Jr. grew up and lived there as well.
Charles’s maternal grandfather, F. Marvin Callan, was a second-generation Irish immigrant and ran a successful Albany insurance business.
Callan’s brother, Lansing, was a pioneering naval aviator who learned to fly with Glenn Curtiss, a competitor of the Wright Brothers and a founder of the U.S. aircraft industry. Curtiss’s company built aircraft for the army and navy in the years leading up to World War I.
Lansing Callan oversaw construction of naval air stations in France during World War I, became a U.S. Navy admiral and later worked for Curtiss’s company, which is now part of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation.
Another brother, Col. Albert Callan, was also a company commander in the 10th Infantry Regiment during the war.
Leafing through old scrapbooks, Charles Wheeler readily sees the sacrifice that families of servicemen made, in addition to soldiers themselves during World War I.
For example, one newspaper headline told what it was like when men left to go overseas. “Women of Albany Brave at Parting: Wives Show Patriotism,” it says.
Many husbands, fathers, sons and brothers never came home.
Charles Wheeler Jr.’s ancestors also served in the War of 1812 and Civil War. His father, Charles Sr., was a lieutenant in the famed 10th Mountain Division during World War II.
“My grandfather and father both went to Albany Academy, so military tradition was in the family from the get-go while I was growing up,” Charles Jr. said.
On Labor Day Weekend 1968, Wheeler Jr. joined the army and later served a year at Long Binh, Vietnam as a combat engineer from June 1970 to June 1971.
Returning home, he went to work for Hyatt Hotels, followed by Albany County Chamber of Commerce, which led to a job as director of the new Empire State Plaza Convention Center.
Next, he oversaw construction and business development of the new Northern Kentucky Convention Center in Covington, directly across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. From there, he came back to the Capital Region to work for New York Racing Association as Saratoga Race Course fa-
cilities manager. He retired as NYRA’s local director of community relations.
Wheeler Jr. is a past Friends of the New York State Military Museum board member and is currently on its advisory board. It’s little wonder, considering his family’s service to country, that he has such an extensive interest in American military history.
“Being in leadership roles was ingrained in me from the beginning,” he said. “They taught me the leadership tools, but it was up to you to succeed.”
Charles Wheeler Jr., of Saratoga Springs, holds the helmet his grandfather, Thomas B. Wheeler, wore during World War I.
Lt. Thomas B. Wheeler commanded a machine gun unit in France during World War I.
Thomas B. Wheeler earned many medals for his service during World War I including the French Croix de Guerre for valor.
Charles Wheeler Jr. owns much of the equipment his grandfather used during World War I including a helmet, field pack, map case, boots, gas mask and various printed materials.