Edith Cheatham Smith – Ossining High School graduate, WWII Volunteer, Aviator

People often ask me how I find the stories I highlight on this blog.  Actually, the real question is how do I not have MORE stories posted to this blog, because there are just so many.  I’m always coming across new ones, and I just can’t keep up!

So, I thought it might be instructive (yeah, sorry, I’m a teacher at heart) on this last day of Women’s History Month to post an unfinished, rather meta post about how I find stories, research and then turn them into blog posts.

Today’s very unfinished but tantalizing story is about Edith Cheatham Smith.  

Edith Cheatham
from the Ossining High School Yearbook, 1936

I learned about her last month at Ossining Village Historian Joyce Sharrock Cole’s exhibit at Bethany Arts Community.  

One of the many fascinating people Cole highlighted was Major Archie Smith, who would marry Edith in 1946.  Texas-born Smith was a graduate of Tuskegee University in Alabama, and a Flight Commander at the Tuskegee Institute during WWII.  After the war, he worked as an instructor for Zahn’s Flying Service in Amityville, Long Island[1], and then went on to found Warhawk Aviation Service (based at the Westchester Airport) in the 1950s.  He was its president until his death in 1966.

He would meet Edith in 1946 when she joined his flying club and “personally taught her to fly.”

Okay, wait, WHAT?  How many women were learning to fly in the 1940s?

Joyce Cole’s exhibit on the Smiths included this snippet on Edith:  

“After two years in night school at NYU, Edith decided to go overseas during WWII with the American Red Cross.  She was stationed in MTO (Mediterranean Theater of Operations) with the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy.”

Let’s learn more, shall we?

First, I reached out to someone local who I thought might be related – they are, but not closely, so couldn’t add anything (yet) to Edith’s story.

Next, I turned to Ancestry.com, my go-to starting point.  Now, you can pay a lot of money for full access, or you can use the free version and access things like the US census which gives you lots of interesting and surprisingly detailed information.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

Edith Cheatham was born in Virginia in 1917.  In about 1924, her parents moved up to Ossining, and in the 1930 census we find the family living at 59 Durston (now Hunter) Street. Her father was a carpenter who had his own business, and her mother was busy raising Edith and her six siblings.

Edith attended Ossining High School, graduating in 1936.  Here’s what she was doing at OHS and what she hoped to do with her life:

I also learned that Edith was in the National Honor Society, a fairly new addition to OHS:

Finally, I’m including this excerpt from the Class Prophecy of that year because in it we learn that OHS had a radio station and that Edith was a talented singer. (There’s also some other fun stuff surrounding her information, like “Victor Biondino’s lecture to housewives on ‘What Makes a Good Lunch.'” Indeed!)

Now, according to the 1940 US census, Edith was still living at home and working as a clerk. (Where?  I wonder.)  At some point in the ‘40s, she volunteered for the Red Cross and got sent to Italy where she was stationed with the 332nd Fighter Group.

Miss Edith Cheatham of Ossining, NY.
From the Pittsburgh Courier, 12/9/1944

A brief aside on the 332nd Fighter Group — this was comprised of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a pioneering group of Black aviators who fought in WWII.  

The Tuskegee Airmen were so called because they trained at Tuskegee University in Alabama.  As the Tuskegee University website says: “Tuskegee University was awarded the U.S. Army Air Corps contract to help train America’s first Black military aviators because it had already invested in the development of an airfield, had a proven civilian pilot training program and its graduates performed highest on flight aptitude exams.”[2]

At first, the mission of the 332nd was to escort bombers who were dropping bombs in southern Europe.  But by February 1944, they were flying combat operations of their own, not just accompanying bombers.

Again, from the Tuskegee University website:

“The Airmen’s success in escorting bombers during World War II – having one of the lowest loss records of all the escort fighter groups, and being in constant demand for their services by the allied bomber units is a record unmatched by any other fighter group.” 

Read more about the Tuskegee Airmen here

And here 

And here 

Back to Edith —  in 1944, she is over in Italy supporting the men of the 332nd.  While the US Archives has documents pertaining to the Red Cross during World War II, unfortunately none of them are digitized, so I couldn’t do a search to learn more about what her life might have been like during this time.

I did, however, come across this thesis by Julia Ramsey on Red Cross Volunteers during WWII, which offers some information about what the Red Cross volunteers did.  It makes for some interesting reading if you’re so inclined.

Perhaps Edith worked in a Clubmobile truck, delivering coffee and donuts to men on the lines.  Perhaps she assisted in a base hospital.  Perhaps she was stationed at the Red Cross Club at the 332nd base.  Maybe she even snuck onto a plane on a covert mission to photograph future bombing sites. (Things like this ARE documented!)  But whatever her specific activities were, they involved courage and resourcefulness.

 In January 1946, she’s listed on the ship’s manifest of the USS General W.P. Richardson, departing Naples, Italy and arriving in New York.  So, I guess she was overseas for about two years? And that she stayed there for several months after the end of the war. I hope she had an opportunity to explore.

More sleuthing uncovered her October 1946 marriage certificate to Archie Smith. Interestingly, they married in Babylon, NY which is right next door to Amityville, where Archie was working as a flight instructor at the famed Zahn’s Flying Service.  (And whether she knew him from working with the Tuskegee Airmen overseas, or met him after the war is still an unknown to me.)

In 1966, Archie and Edith were living on Batton Road with their three children in Croton-on-Hudson, and Archie was the founder and president of Warhawk Aviation, a private plane service based at the Westchester County Airport.  (I know this because I found his obituary from that year.)

Edith would move to Mesa, Arizona at some point and pass away in 2007.

So that’s all very interesting as far as it goes, but I want to know more about the 18-year-old girl who wrote “Nothing ventured, nothing gained” in her yearbook.  What inspired her to learn to fly?  And head into the middle of a World War?  And what was her life like after she returned home?  Did she keep flying?  Did she keep singing?

Here’s where we see how historical facts only give you a basic narrative  – there’s so much more to this story that I still haven’t uncovered.  And here’s where the human part enters.  Unless I stumble upon Edith’s personal journal, or a trove of correspondence, I can only learn the rest from the recollections of others.  And these recollections will no doubt be influenced by time and respect and, likely, the very understandable desire to tell a good, positive story.  

I think it’s important to keep all this in mind when considering history in general.  As we learn new facts, histories – stories — should change.  The histories we learned in grade school should and must be updated as new information is uncovered (Thomas Jefferson, I’m looking at you!)  Plus, the histories we tell are inevitably grounded in the present from which they are told.  

So perhaps it’s fitting to end Women’s History Month with this story of a non-celebrity, a “regular” woman, who nonetheless lived a remarkable life.  One that should be remembered because these (to me) are the most inspirational stories.  If she could do what she did in the 1940s – learn to fly, volunteer overseas on the battlefield – what’s stopping the rest of us?

[1] https://www.zahnsairport.com  

[2] https://www.tuskegee.edu/support-tu/tuskegee-airmen/tuskegee-airmen-facts

Ossining War Casualty – Private Benjamin Feeney

Ossining War Casualty – Private Benjamin Feeney
Private Benjamin Feeney. Photo Source: Ossining Historical Society pamphlet “A Memorial 1775 – 1983”

Today, let’s learn a little bit about Benjamin Feeney, one of Ossining’s own who made the greatest sacrifice in World War 1. (But no, he is NOT the Feeney after whom Feeney Road is named after. It is actually named after Ensign Mary Feeney, a U.S. Navy Corps nurse. See this post here.)

Benjamin K. Feeney was a Private in the 165th Infantry, Company L.  He died in a German prison camp on August 7, 1918 from wounds received in battle on August 1, 1918.

Now, the 165th Infantry Regiment[1] had originally been known as the 69th Infantry Regiment, but for reasons known only to the Army, it was renamed the 165th in July of 1917 and became part of the 42nd Division.  Because the 42nd was comprised of National Guard units from many states, then-Major Douglas MacArthur noted that the “42nd Division stretches like a Rainbow from one end of America to the other.”  Ever after, the 165th was known as the Rainbow Division.

Fun fact – as the 69th Infantry Regiment it was known as the “Fighting 69th”, a nickname supposedly given to it by Robert E. Lee during the Civil War.  Its Armory still stands at 26th Street and Lexington Avenue in New York City and has had a storied history I won’t get into here.  But you should definitely Google it.

Also, here’s another fun fact:  Father Duffy (of the statue in Times Square, right where the TKTS half-price ticket booth is located) was the regimental chaplain for the Fighting 69th.  Poet Joyce Kilmer (you probably know him from the poem “Trees” that begins “I THINK that I shall never see/A poem lovely as a tree”) was also a member of this regiment and was killed on July 30, during the Aisne-Marne counter- offensive, just a week before our Private Feeney died.

Now, I’m not going to get into the weeds about the Aisle-Marne counter-offensive, or the Battle of Second Marne as it is sometimes called, to distinguish it from the first Battle of the Marne that took place in 1914. However, the fact that there are two battles of the same name on basically the same bit of land four years apart tells you something about what deadlock this World War was.

But I will note that this battle was Germany’s last major offensive of WWI and that it signed the Armistice about 100 days later, so this could certainly be seen as the beginning of the end for them. Some even think that the German infantry was decimated by the so-called “Spanish flu” and this contributed to their crushing defeat.

But back to our doughboy, Benjamin Feeney.

According to the 1905 census, Private Feeney was the son of Coleman and Bridget Feeney and born in about 1890.  He lived on Revolutionary Road with his parents and at least seven siblings.[2]  

On November 6, 1917, as a member of the National Guard incorporated into the 165th Regiment, he traveled to France, on the troopship Ascania, departing from Montreal, Canada.

According to the Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985 [3] Private Feeney took part in several major engagements in France: Rouge Bouquet (in March 1918.) Poet Joyce Kilmer was also in this battle and wrote a poem called Rouge Bouquet in memory of their fallen comrades.

Other battles in which poor Private Feeney fought in were in Baccarat (April 1918), Champagne (June 1918), and Chateau Thierry (July 1918). I realize that these last three sound like a vacation, but they were brutal, trench-based conflicts that make “All Quiet on the Western Front” seem tame.

His final battle was the Aisne-Marne Offensive whose objective was to cross the Ourcq River and force the Germans to retreat (Read this if you want a deeper dive.)  While the Allies were, as previously mentioned, successful, the 165th suffered a 42% casualty rate.  Our poor Private Feeney was one of them.

His record notes “captured August 1/18, released, death at Limburg, Germany of wounds received in action.”  He was likely held at Limburg an der Lahn, a large German POW camp, in the days before he died.  

He was buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery, Seringes-et-Nesles, France.

(And no, Feeney Road in the Town of Ossining is NOT named after him. It is named after Ensign Mary Feeney, who also died in World War II.)

RIP Private Feeney.

[1] https://museum.dmna.ny.gov/unit-history/conflict/world-war-1-1914-1918/165th-infantry-regiment-69th-new-york

[2] https://search.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/sse.dll?indiv=1&dbid=7364&h=2305118&tid=&pid=&queryId=edd8a6b452d613a8248c1e2978ef0da1&usePUB=true&_phsrc=IZv2&_phstart=successSource

[3] The National Archives at College Park; College Park, Maryland; Record Group Title: Records of the Office of the Quartermaster General, 1774-1985; Record Group Number: 92; Roll or Box Number: 379