Hometown of the first national commander remembers World War I

Burlington, N.J., hometown of The American Legion’s first national commander, Franklin D'Olier, is rooted in connections to World War I. On Sunday, the Philadelphia suburb honored Veterans Day and the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War.

On the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, exactly 100 years after the signing of the armistice to end hostilities of World War I, the sound of bells coming from D’Olier’s parish, St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, filled the town to honor those who served.

The Rev. Connor Haynes, rector at St. Mary’s and a Sons of The American Legion member, was eager for his parish to take part in the honoring of the special anniversary.

“I was aware of the coming armistice centennial anniversary so I arranged with Bob Bacon, our master of chimes, to make sure we rang the bells,” he said. “Subsequently I found out about the Bells of Peace … so we are glad to connect with that initiative.”

Bacon, who has held his position since 2011, played hymns by tolling the bells for 26 minutes, pulling on eight heavy ropes from the bell tower to control the hammers within the church’s bells. The bells, which came from the same foundry that had previously cast the Liberty Bell and Big Ben – Whitechapel Foundry of London – have been in the possession of the church since 1866.

“We are happy to say a finer peal of bells never left this foundry. They have been so universally admired … that we are sorry to lose them,” wrote Mears and Stainbank, the casters of the bells.

Bacon did the bells justice with his performance and remarked to Rev. Haynes, “If we were going to do this, we were going to do it right.”

That attention to detail on such an important day is to be expected from a parish which such a rich history of military service.

“When you talk about the history of veterans in this church you are going back a long, long way. In our churchyard, which dates to 1695, we have veterans of every (American) war buried here,” Haynes said. “We have in our church the memorial tablet for all of those who served in the first World War, including Capt. James McFarland, for whom The American Legion post is named, and who is one of two parishioners who died during the war. Franklin D’Olier was a native of Burlington and during World War I he served in the armed forces. After World War I, he was instrumental in the founding of The American Legion and was the first national commander of The American Legion.”

Haynes’s participation in the day’s events also involved being part of the town’s parade down High Street, which concludes outside of Memorial Hall, home of Cpt. James McFarland American Legion Post 79.

Members of the local community, including members from Post 79 and Slade-Valentine Post 336, marched to patriotic songs played by the Burlington City High School Blue Devils marching band and waved to onlookers.

Upon reaching Post 79, attendees gathered around a covered and newly refurbished Rock of the Marne statue, set to be unveiled, and were greeted with remarks from Burlington’s Mayor Barry W. Conaway.

“We take time on this patriotic holiday to recognize Americans for their patriotism to serve and sacrifice for the common good to preserve the freedom and liberties that we unfortunately take for granted,” Conaway said.

The event’s keynote speaker, Frank S. Caruso, serves as commander of Sons of the American Legion Squadron 79, adjutant for Post 79 and chair of the Rock of the Marne’s restoration committee.

“Today we gather to reaffirm our commitment to giving veterans the honor and recognition they deserve every day,” he said.

“Civilians often wonder, ‘How do we thank veterans for their service?’ One way is to erect lasting memorials in honor of those who fought and paid the ultimate sacrifice. In the wake of World War I, citizens across the world did just that. Citizens of Burlington were no different. Participants in fundraising for this complex ranged from the well-to-do ‘$100 Club’ down to local schoolchildren who donated their milk money. The result was the Memorial Hall complex we stand in front of today which was dedicated on November 12, 1923. The centerpiece being the Rock of the Marne statue which honors the 38th Infantry 3rd Division, nicknamed the Rock of the Marne.”

Since 1923, time and nature took its toll and the monument faded. A concerted effort from the local American Legion posts and other veterans advocacy groups tried to find ways to restore the monument with the centennial anniversary approaching.

Recently, the World War I Centennial Commission provided a grant for the restoration of the monument, which shows a copper soldier in uniform with his front foot anchored on a rock while holding a rifle. The statue is atop a granite stone with a bronze plaque with names of those from Burlington who served.

As Caruso concluded his speech just before 11 a.m., the newly refurbished monument was unveiled for the first time, synchronized to end just before the Bells of Peace began to toll.