Ossining War Casualty – U.S. Navy Nurse, Ensign Mary Feeney

Ossining War Casualty – U.S. Navy Nurse, Ensign Mary Feeney

Folks, I have made a mistake.  

Not too long ago, I published a blog post about Private Benjamin Feeney, an Ossining casualty of World War I, and stated that Feeney Road in the Town of Ossining was named in his honor.

Feeney Road is actually named after Ensign Mary Elizabeth Feeney, a U.S. Navy nurse who died in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on April 14, 1943. I learned of my error when I saw a 1963 letter from the Ossining Town Board confirming that two new streets would be named after veterans Mary Feeney and Nathan Bayden.

So, as a prelude to Memorial Day, let’s right that wrong and learn about Ensign Mary Feeney.

Ensign Mary Elizabeth Feeney. Source: Ossining Historical Society pamphlet “A Memorial 1775 – 1983”

Mary Feeney was born in Ossining on September 11, 1916 to John and Ida Mae (Farren) Feeney.  Her father was a desk clerk for the Ossining Police. She was also the niece of our Private Benjamin Feeney — Mary’s father John was Benjamin’s older brother. What a tragedy for him to lose a brother and a daughter in the World Wars!

They first rented a house at 72 South Highland Avenue and then moved to 31 Hamilton Avenue.

Both houses still stand today:

72 Highland Avenue. Photo source: Google Streetview
31 Hamilton Avenue. Photo source: Google Streetview

Mary, I believe, went to Ossining High School, likely graduating in 1935.  (Alas, I’ve been unable to hunt out the OHS yearbook from 1935. I hear the Ossining Historical Society has it, but it is difficult to access.  Someday I shall find it and confirm this assertion.)  

She went on to study nursing at the Cochran School of Nursing at St. John’s Riverside Hospital, Yonkers, graduating in 1937.  

According to the 1940 census, she was listed as being a nurse in “private practice.”[1] (I imagine her taking care of a wealthy but crotchety Victorian invalid who lived in an elegant, but airless and dark home who imperiously ordered Mary about and was perhaps even addicted to morphine.) No wonder Nurse Feeney joined the U.S. Navy Nurses Corps as soon as she saw this poster, signing up as an Ensign in August of 1941.

Navy Nurse Recruiting Poster.  Photo source: National Archives

I haven’t been able to find out anything about where she trained or was posted at first, but I did learn that in May of 1942 she married Bernard Joseph Gordenstein in Hillsborough, New Hampshire.  He was also in the Navy, a pharmacist in fact, but I can’t pinpoint where they might have met.

Less than two months after they wed, Gordenstein shipped out on the USS Cub One Project, sailing from San Francisco.  (This apparently was a code name for Advanced Base Aviation Training Units (ABATU) that were sent to the Pacific to train with and serve the forces fighting there.)[2]

In February 1943, Gordenstein was evacuated from Naval Base Hospital No. 3 in Espiritu Santo by the USS Solace.  From there, he was transferred to US Naval Mobile Hospital No. 4 which may or may not have been based in Wellington, New Zealand.  (Names and numbers of hospitals, especially the mobile ones, got shifted around in the heat of the Pacific battles.) He’s listed as a patient on the manifest of the USS Solace, but no other details are given.

Nice, you say, but what of Mary Feeney (at this point, Mary E.F. Gordenstein)?  

I just don’t know.  I went down the rabbit hole of her husband’s service record because I thought I’d find her lurking in the shadows of the internet, but no such luck.  I see no listing for her on any muster rolls or ship manifests that I have been able to find.

But at some point, Ensign Mary Feeney was posted to Hawaii and served at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital.  I think it’s unlikely that she was there for the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, because the Navy put its nurses through rigorous training before they were sent out into the field.  However, I don’t know exactly what that entailed or how long it took.  And, as mentioned before, Ensign Feeney signed up in August 1941, so theoretically she could have been in Pearl Harbor that fateful December morning.  But until more documents regarding Navy nurses are digitized over at the National Archives, this is all I know right now.

I did find more information and some photos of Navy Nurses in general on this excellent website if you want a deeper dive:

It’s strange that there is so little information available online about the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps. Well, at least in terms of official service records.  Via the above-referenced website and Wikipedia (I know, I know), I’ve learned that over 11,000 nurses, both active and reserve, served in the Navy during WWII.  When our Mary Feeney joined up, there were only about 1,700 Navy nurses. Throughout WWII, Navy nurses were right there at the battle sites in both the Atlantic and the Pacific, going out onto the beaches to gather the wounded of Guadalcanal, Guam, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa (just name-checking some of the more well-known battles, but know that Navy nurses were all over.) Some were even captured and held as POWs (google “Angels of Bataan” for more.)

About 230 US Navy nurses died during WWII.

Here’s a 1942 photo from the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery:

Administrative group including Navy nurses and Red Cross workers at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital, 1942. Photo source: U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery

What do you think?  Is that nurse third from the left Mary Feeney? I can see a resemblance to the one photo I’ve found of her.

And how about this pic?  Do you think that first nurse on the left could be Mary Feeney?  This actually does seem like a possibility. (I do so want there to be one photo of her in uniform.) If it is, it would have been taken just four months before her death.

U.S. Navy Nurses pose for a group portrait at Pearl Harbor, Territory of Hawaii, December 16, 1942.  Photo source: National Museum of the U.S. Navy

Post your thoughts in the comments (and of course, if you see anything I’ve gotten wrong, or if you have any further information, please let me know!)

Sadly, the last thing I have been able to uncover about Ensign Mary Feeney is that she died of pneumonia on April 14, 1943 while stationed at the Pearl Harbor Naval Hospital and that she was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star medal.[3]

Mary Elizabeth Feeney Gordenstein is buried in the Halawa Naval Cemetery in Oahu, Hawaii, Section C, Grave 330.

Interestingly, her obituary in the Peekskill Star does not mention her marriage, her husband, or even refer to her by her married name.

I know that if I ever go to Oahu, I will be visiting her gravesite.

[1] 1940 US Federal Census

[2] https://military-history.fandom.com/wiki/Cub-1

[3] Peekskill Star, 4/20/1943 Mary Feeney obituary

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

Ossining War Casualty –  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