Albert Finch 1915 and laterAlbert Harrison Finch as he appeared circa 1915 (left) before World War I, and as he looked in his later years post-World War II. 

Sergeant Albert H. Finch in the Great War

By WIlliam Finch
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site

In honor of my Grandpa, I (William Finch) thought it was appropriate to document what I know about Albert H. Finch, who was a remarkable man and an inspiration to me. I am the heir to his medals, and his personal papers. The bulk of this article was written in 2018, with some recent edits and additions.

Early Days:

Albert Harrison Finch was born on July 4, 1895, in Roaring Brook Township, PA, near Scranton, Pennsylvania. His father’s name was Harrison Isaac Finch, and his mother was Louise Holford Finch (nee Isgar). His grandfather William Isgar was from Somerset, England.

The Finches were from a long line of Americans, starting with Abraham Finch, who was born in Stamford Connecticut in 1665. The family moved west to the Wyoming Valley of Pennsylvania, and some of Albert’s ancestors fought in the Battle of Wyoming, July 3. 1778, also called the “Wyoming Massacre”. There is a statue in Wyoming, PA commemorating this battle, with the names of three Patriots on it named Finch (Benjamin, Daniel, and John). These were ancestors of my Grandpa. (see: “Pennamite Wars” for an interesting perspective)

Before the war:

I remember a few stories my Grandpa told me about his life before the War. One story involved his father, Harrison Isaac Finch. Harrison oversaw the horse barn (a “teamster”) at Scranton Coal and Water. When the company got its first Model T Ford, Harrison quit, stating that this would be the end of the working man. He lived on a farm ten miles from Scranton, and regularly walked into town, never buying a car. Albert told me to think about how many jobs were created by the automobile, and that his father was so mistaken!

Grandpa also told me that before the war, he played for the Scranton minor league baseball team, (perhaps the “Scranton Miners”). My father Robert mentioned he thought his father had signed a contract to play pro baseball before he enlisted in the Army. That was not to be, however.

Albert H. Finch left with friend Ernie HenkelmanAlbert H. Finch (left) with friend Ernie Henkelman, possibly in 1915. Sgt. Ernest John Henkelman served in the Medical Corps at Camp Merritt, NJ.One more story I recall is that Grandpa worked on a Great Lakes Steamer before the war, possibly as a porter. In the 1910 census, he was shown as living at 835 Willow Street, Scranton, PA, with his father, at his brother-in-law Max Kaeb’s house. He was listed as a “laborer” at the age of 14. He left school after the eighth grade.

War comes:

Although the First World War started on July 28, 1914, the US was not officially at war until April 6, 1917, (after a declaration of war by President Woodrow Wilson). Albert enlisted in the US Army May 16, 1917, and arrived in Europe on June 15, 1918, more than a year later.

Two years a soldier:

PA National Guard WW1 Victory medalThe Pennsynvania National Guard WW1 Victory medalAlbert enlisted in the Pennsylvania National Guard, and originally was part of company F, 1st Engineers, Pa National Guard.

On August 5, the NG was federalized as the 28th division, and he was assigned to the 103rd Engineers.

On August 20, 1917, the 28th division left Pennsylvania to train at Camp Hancock, GA, (near Augusta), and on April 21, 1918 the first units of the division left Georgia, headed for Camp Mills, NY.

Leaving for the War:

Most of the 103rd Engineer regiment left Camp Hancock on May 9, 1918, and then embarked on the troop ship SS Metagama from New York. They arrived in Liverpool on May 31, 1918.

However, Albert was not with them. The records show that he was admitted to the hospital at Camp Hancock on May 8, 1918, and that he left the US on June 15, 1918.

I have his personal New Testament (carried throughout the war), given to him by the family of John Luzt on May 20, 1918.

The records do not show why he was in the camp hospital, and I can only speculate. This was a few months before the Spanish Flu epidemic hit Camp Hancock and Augusta, Georgia.

He was a private in Company F, 103rd Engineer Regiment (a sapper regiment), 28th Keystone Division when he left the US. When he left New York on the USS Rijndam, the passenger manifest listed soldiers from many different units. Albert was attached to the 116th Engineers, Company D until reunited with the 103rd on July 16, 1918. Rather than going through England, these troops went directly to France, arriving at the port of Brest on June 27, 1918.

USS RijndamUSS RijndamThe USS Rijndam was a Holland America cruise ship that had been seized by US Customs and converted to a troop ship. The SS Rijndam was in New York for safety due to the U-Boat warfare, and since the Netherlands was neutral, the US invoked the “Right of Angary” to seize control of numerous Dutch (and other nation’s) ships for the war effort. Below is a description of that voyage from Wikipedia:

“On her next transport voyage, Rijndam left New York on 15 June with Kroonland, Finland, DeKalb, George Washington, Covington, Italian steamer Dante Alighieri, and British steamer Vauban and met up with the Newport News portion of the convoy—which included Lenape, Wilhelmina, Princess Matoika, Pastores, and British troopship Czar—the next morning and set out for France. The convoy was escorted by cruisers North Carolina and Frederick, and destroyers Stevens and Fairfax; battleship Texas and several other destroyers joined in escort duties for the group for a time. The convoy had a false alarm when a floating barrel was mistaken for submarine, but otherwise uneventfully arrived at Brest on the afternoon of 27 June.”

103rd Engineers 300The red Keystone patch of the 103rd EngineersThe 103rd Engineer Regiment has a storied past, and were part of the 28th Division, which was formed out of the Pennsylvania National Guard. The 28th, called the “Iron Division” by General Pershing due to their fierce fighting at Meuse-Argonne, carried a red Keystone patch, and were active in most of the battles the US Army fought in WW1.

Albert_Finch_Victory_Medal.jpgAlbert Finch's WWI Victory MedalA look at Albert’s WW1 victory medal, with its battle clasps, gives some idea of his service. Listed on his medal are:

  • Champagne-Marne
  • Aisne-Marne
  • Oise-Aisne
  • Meuse-Argonne
  • Defensive Sector (After the Armistice until leaving France)

On his Victory medal bar, there would have been 4 small stars, representing the battles listed on the full medal. I have never seen his victory medal bar, however.

The above battles are well-documented in the histories of WW1, so I will not try to describe them. But the battles shown are some of the final battles of the World War and reflect a period of roughly five months of combat in some of the most brutal conditions imaginable.
A very good source of information about the 103rd Engineers in France is the book “The Lost Sketchbooks: A young artist in the Great War” by Rex Passion. The illustrations were done by Edward Shenton, who was a Corporal in Company B of the 103rd Engineers. His experiences and drawings are woven with the general historical perspective of the war. I read it cover to cover in two evenings.

The job of a combat engineer is to provide support to the infantry units they are attached to, while also being ready to fight. They built roads, built bridges, destroyed bridges, set up water supplies, and cleared obstacles, along with many other duties.

Albert told me one combat story. When a big attack was planned for the next day, he and his men went out in the dark, very quietly, between the trenches, and cut barbed wire and marked the cuts. This was so that the soldiers attacking the next day could advance through the wire without getting tangled.

Purple HeartHe said they would cross “No man’s land," on their backs, cutting and marking lanes in the wire, getting so close to the German trenches that they could hear them talking, and smell the German’s cigarette smoke. They had to be back before light, avoid detection, and try to rest when the rolling barrages would start.

He got emotional when recounting watching the Americans getting mowed down as they climbed out of the trenches to attack. He really saw his work at the time was to save lives if possible.

silver WWI Victory buttonThe Purple Heart medal shown at left was awarded for Albert’s injuries that were received on the last day of the World War. Since the Purple Heart medal was not active at the time of the World War, he would have received a wound chevron to attach to his uniform and was given a silver World War victory button (silver denoted an injury), shown at right. When the Purple Heart was reinstated in 1932, WW1 injured soldiers could apply for it, which he did.

The Armistice

As he told me, before the end of the war (11AM on November 11, 1918,), his unit was attached to an artillery unit at the front, to form the Allied Armistice line. This was in the Thiacourt Sector, from his records. He had been there since October 15, 1918.

He told me that the morning on November 11, he was with his unit at the Armistice line, and the morning started with a dense fog. As the fog slowly cleared, they became aware of the German armistice line about 100 yards away. He told me that an officer fresh from the States told them “We are still at war until 11:00. Open fire!” So, they obeyed orders, and opened fire. The Germans returned fire, and Albert was hit with shrapnel from a German high explosive shell. His wounds were described as “severe” on his service record. I have since learned that many troops were casualties on the last day of the war.

Albert was admitted to US field hospital #45 in Toul, France on November 12, where he stayed until Christmas Eve, 1918. He was returned to his unit, and he was posted near the commune of Uruffe in Meurthe-et-Moselle, in northeastern France on January 15, 1919. The duties there included fixing roads, bridges and water works.

He told me the French villagers called him “Le petite Sergeant” since by that time he had been promoted to Sergeant (March 3, 1919) and was a bit short of stature.

LiberatorUSS LiberatorGoing home:

Albert left St. Nazaire, France on the USS Liberator (a converted freight ship) on April 24, 1919 and arrived in Philadelphia May 7, 1919. (The Liberator, by the way, was torpedoed by a U-boat on March 19, 1942, off North Carolina).

One story he told me was that when he arrived in Philadelphia, he was walking down the street when a person recognized the Masonic pin on his uniform. Seeing it, he was taken to a nice dinner, given a hotel room, and given taxi fare to get him to the train station the next morning. He was a lifelong Mason, holding membership until the day he died.

He was demobilized at Camp Dix, NJ on May 19, 1919, and returned to Scranton, PA.

938 River Street938 River Street, Scranton, PAAfter the War

In 1924, Albert married Jennie Mary Emick, the daughter of Frederick Emick and Elizabeth Grieser, who were of German origin. The only place I know they lived (until retirement) was at 938 River Street, Scranton, PA. I went there many times and remember a big (to me as a child) home, with many stairs, and a basement full of temptations. There was a large coal bin (the house was heated by coal until they sold it), and Albert always had cases of birch beer down there.

Albert’s father Harrison helped them buy the house, which was in a section of South Scranton that was originally laid out as housing for workers of the Lackawanna Iron and Coal Company.

Albert and Jennie adopted both of their children. My father Robert was adopted in 1936, during the Great Depression. Born in September 1934, and named Robert Raymond Borer, his mother Jean died in August 1935. Unable to care for all seven children, his father Edward William Borer put the youngest three children up for adoption. My father was renamed Robert Albert Finch. He died in 2017.

His sister was born in 1940 and adopted by the Finches. She was renamed Elizabeth Louise Finch, which were long-time Finch family names. Aunt Betsey was frequently ill, and the records show Albert and Jennie mortgaged their house several times to pay medical bills for her care. At one point they resorted to consulting a traveling “healing” preacher, to no avail. Aunt Betsey died in 1999.

Cedar GlenCedar GlenDuring the Second World War, Albert was a purchasing agent for a company that built wings for the B-29 bomber. To help him, many relatives gave him their gas ration coupons. My father told me that he left that job due to the rampant corruption he saw, and he became a clerk at a hardware firm that sold equipment to the coal mines in the Scranton-Wilkes-Barre area. My Grandpa was a very honest and straight-forward man.

He was active in the Church and he was a deacon at the Hickory Street Presbyterian Church when I was baptized there.

After he retired, Albert and Jennie moved to Toms River, NJ, to a retirement village named Cedar Glen. My wife and I visited them there several times, and Al and Jennie were always busy with the garden, with church activities, and socializing. One year we were there on his birthday, July 4, and the phone never stopped ringing, with birthday greetings from all over the country.

Grandma Jennie died on March 21, 1983, and Albert followed her on November 29, 1985. They are buried near Scranton, at Abington Hills Cemetery, where many of the family are.

Headstone


Scenes Albert probably had seen firsthand (from “The 28th Division in France” by Eugene Gilbert, Company E, 103rd Engineers)

Eugene Gilbert Drawing 1

 Eugene Gilbert Drawing 2

Form 6

Sources of Information:

Personal discussions with Albert H. Finch

USS Rijndam: http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/172505.htm (Also Wikipedia)

USS Liberator: http://www.navsource.org/archives/12/173134.htm

Right of Angary: https://www.britannica.com/topic/angary

Ship manifests and military records: Ancestry.com

Photo of tombstone: https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/15477290/albert-finch

Wikipedia (various information)

ORDER OF BATTLE OF THE UNITED STATES LAND FORCES IN THE WORLD WAR, American Expeditionary Forces: Divisions, Volume 2 Downloaded from: https://history.army.mil/html/books/023/23-2/CMH_Pub_23-2.pdf pages 141-152

28th Division in France, Eugene Gilbert, 103rd Engineers Company E, Published 1919 in France

The Lost Sketchbooks: a young artist in the great war“ by Rex Passion: Illustrated by Edward Shenton. ISBN978-9828219-5-4 Komatik Press