Ossining War Veterans – Private Elting W. Roosa, 1896 – 1918

Ossining War Veterans –  Private Elting W. Roosa, 1896 – 1918

Continuing my investigation into the stories behind the Ossining streets named after veterans, today’s post begins with Roosa Lane.

Roosa Lane, off Hawkes Avenue, Ossining. Photo by John Curvan

Now, as you will note, Roosa Lane does not have a star on it as other street signs do, but it DOES have a flag.  While I’m still researching this, I believe the older streets (such as Feeney and Bayden for example) have the star while more recent ones, like Roosa, are demarcated with a flag.  

Roosa Lane is named after Private Elting W. Roosa, who died in France on October 25, 1918, just about two weeks before the Armistice.  He was a member of the 105th Co. Medical Training Division, 27th Division at the time of his death.

Private Elting W. Roosa. Photo from the Columbia University Libraries

Roosa was born on July 11, 1896, in Kingston, New York, to William and Mary Roosa.  The family moved to Ossining sometime after 1905 and lived at 4 Church Street, aka the Rowe building.

4 Church Street, c. 1910. Photo Courtesy of Dana White/Ossining Historical Society

Later, they moved to 11 Independence Place in Ossining.  According to the 1914 Ossining City Directory, 18-year-old Elting Roosa was working as a clerk (father William was a carpenter.)  But the next year, Elting enrolled in Columbia University’s School of Pharmacy, graduating in 1917.[i]  Just before he graduated, in April of 1917, he joined the NY National Guard’s 102nd Sanitary Train, composed of ambulance and field hospital companies.

Upon graduation, Elting had quickly found a job as a pharmacist, in Tarrytown at Russell & Lawrie. (Fun fact, if they are not still in existence as of 2022, they were until very recently.) But he was drafted in June, and by July, Private Roosa and the rest of the 27th Division went down to Camp Wadsworth in Spartanburg, South Carolina for training. Just less than a year later, on June 30, 1918, he was sent overseas on the USS Huron and arrived in Brest, France – one of the last of his division to arrive.

I haven’t been able to confirm exactly what he did overseas – I’ve learned that many US Army personnel records spanning the years 1912 – 1963 were destroyed in a 1973 fire, so perhaps that accounts for the lack of information.[ii]  

However, I think it’s likely that Roosa may have served as a medic, an orderly or perhaps even a pharmacist.  But even in those few months that he was overseas, he must have seen plenty of the horrors of war. His Division, the 27th, was involved in the last, great push of the War, the Meuse-Argonne Offensive on the Somme that took place from September 24 – October 1.

Over one million US soldiers participated in this battle and over 26,000 died.  

But our Private Roosa didn’t die in battle – no, he died of pneumonia.  Remember, at this time, the Great Influenza was ravaging armies in the US and across Europe.   And the Battle of Meuse-Argonne happened just as the second, most deadly wave of the influenza epidemic was peaking.  According to an article published by the National Institute of Health (NIH) entitled “Death from 1918 pandemic influenza during the First World War: a perspective from personal and anecdotal evidence,” there were over 100K troop fatalities all told due to influenza at this time.[iii]

Further, the article details reports made by Colonel Jefferson Kean, the Deputy Chief Surgeon of the Allied Expedition Forces based in France.  On September 18, 1918, he wrote of a “Sudden and serious increase in influenza-pneumonia.”  By October 6, he was reporting that “Influenza and pneumonia . . . increased by thousands of cases.  Case mortality of pneumonia 32 percent.”  The next week, it had increased to 45%.  

It was right about this time that our Private Roosa must have contracted what was likely influenza-pneumonia, dying shortly thereafter.  As Sister Catherine Macfie observed at her field hospital in nearby Lille, France: “The boys were coming in with colds and a headache and they were dead within two or three days.  Great, big handsome fellows, healthy men, just came in and died.  There was no rejoicing in Lille the night of the Armistice.”[iv]

A surprising fact I uncovered was that while about 53,000 American soldiers died in combat in WWI, approximately 45,000 additional US soldiers died of influenza and pneumonia. It’s very hard to get one’s head around those figures.

Another surprising fact is that Private Roosa was buried three times – below are the cards for his burials and disinterrments.  

From the Records of the Quartermaster General, Card Register of Burials of Deceased Soldiers,
1917 – 1922, National Archives

This intrigued me, so I did a deep dive and learned that the odyssey of Private Roosa’s remains illustrates two stories: one, the development of how America would treat its battlefield dead going forward, and two, the political nightmare the repatriation of the US war dead was to become.

WWI was the first time the US Government attempted the repatriation of its fallen soldiers, but then of course this was the first time they had sent so many overseas to fight in a war. (Up until the 20th century, casualties of war were buried more or less where they fell.)

But after WWI ended, many families wanted their sons (and daughters – let’s not forget the 400+ American nurses who died during this war) to come home.

Though former President Theodore Roosevelt, whose son Quentin’s plane was shot down in July 1918 over the Marne, publicly announced that he wanted his son to remain where he fell, his sentiment was in the minority.

So, the Graves Registration Service (GRA) took on the tremendous project of determining what families’ wishes were and fulfilling them.  To this end, over 74,000 postcards were sent out to the families of fallen soldiers asking if they wanted their remains repatriated.  Ultimately, over 44,000 bodies were shipped home for burial. 

But at the Armistice (11/11/1918), there were over 23,000 burial sites across the war zone. To accomplish their task, the GRA had to consolidate and relocate, establishing 700 temporary cemeteries for this purpose.  

This likely explains why Private Roosa was first buried in a British cemetery in Maissemy, then disinterred and reburied about a year later in an American cemetery, that would be known as Flanders Field.

One thing I think is worth mentioning is that at that time, the US Army was still segregated.  And this task of exhuming thousands of bodies was primarily assigned to the Black labor battalions. [v] This picture, from the National Archives and Records Administration, shows soldiers at work in the Ardennes, France.

Photo courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration

In 1921, Private Roosa’s remains were exhumed and transported back to the States on the USS Cambrai, leaving Antwerp, Belgium on March 21, and arriving in Hoboken, NJ on April 3. (Ossining’s Sergeant Joseph De Barbiery arrived in Hoboken three months later, in July, 1921.)

I also learned that France, desperate to recover from four years of brutal war that had destroyed its farms, towns and cities, not to mention an entire generation of young men, was not terribly enthusiastic about devoting its limited resources to the transport of the dead while its living were in dire need. They also didn’t want the sight of coffins to further traumatize its citizens. So it took several years of diligent diplomacy to make all the necessary arrangements for the 44,000 soldiers whose families wanted them home.vi

Caskets waiting for transport in Antwerp, Belgium, 1921. Photo courtesy of the US Army Signal Corps.

I have found no record of a funeral for Private Roosa, but he lies buried in Ossining, in Dale Cemetery, next to his mother and father and not too far from the street that bears his name today.

Photo by Caroline Curvan

[i] https://library.columbia.edu/libraries/cuarchives/warmemorial/world-war-i/roosa-elting-w.html

[ii] https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/1998/fall/military-service-in-world-war-one.html)

[iii]  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181817/  

[iv] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4181817/  

[v] https://www.washingtonpost.com/history/2021/05/31/world-war-i-exhumed-memorial-day

[vi] https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc804852/m2/1/high_res_d/thesis.pdf