Cemeteries are sometimes called “silent cities.” That’s a little morbid perhaps, but it expresses the idea that every cold stone there represents a life. Every stone represents a story.
Although death was the ultimate ending of all of those stories, some are more tragic than others. I could relate a great many such tales here, but today I want to talk about just one. It is another example of the sacrifice made by our local families to the nation.
Walking through Granby Memorial Cemetery recently with a friend, we came across a flat military gravestone. Like a number of military stones you’ll find around here, the death date fell within the time frame of one of our nation’s wars.
This year marks the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. A declaration of war was passed by Congress on April 6, 1917. Chances are, in coming months I will be writing about a number of local men who fought in the once optimistically-named “war to end all wars.”
One of those heroes, and whose simple memorial is in Granby Cemetery, was Sgt. James Monroe Finn. James was born on July 1, 1892, in Granby. His paternal grandfather was an Irish immigrant. His father was a lead miner.
James struck out on his own before he turned 18 and by his 23rd year he was living in Carterville, in Jasper County, though his family remained in Granby. Like his father, he was a lead miner. He had blue eyes and brown hair and he described himself as “stout” on his draft registration card. He was also unmarried.
Perhaps life as a miner didn’t suit him, or maybe he wished to enlist on his own before being drafted, because on June 21, 1917, James joined the United States Marine Corps. After basic training, he was assigned to 96th Company, 2nd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 4th Marine Brigade, 2nd Marine Division, American Expeditionary Force.
James must have made a good Marine because by the following year he had worked his way up the ranks to sergeant.
With The Great War raging in Europe, the 6th Marines were shipped over in the latter part of 1917. On St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1918, the Irish-blooded James entered the muddy front line trenches near Verdun, France, with the comrades of his regiment.
For the next two months, until May 9, the 6th Marines were exposed to the grim realities of trench warfare. To quote a history of the regiment, these included “cooties, rats, ‘wire parties,’ raids, and poison gas. They made many patrols and raids — both day and night.
They also learned the difficulties of relieving troops in front-line positions, how to coordinate the fire of their weapons with supporting artillery fire, and how to best deal with German raiding parties.”
During that time at Verdun, the 4th Brigade, which included the 6th Marines, lost 128 killed and 744 wounded. Then, on May 14, five days after the Marines were pulled off the front line at Verdun, there was a poison mustard gas attack on their reserve position. James was among the casualties.
Mustard gas is a toxic sulfur-based gas that is usually a dark yellow or brown in color, giving it its name. It will cause terrible blisters on exposed skin and in the lungs. Both sides used it World War I, usually in the form of gas canister shells fired by artillery.
A couple of weeks after the gas attack, James’ regiment participated in the most famous battle in its unit history – the Battle of Belleau Wood, for which the 6th Marines earned the French Croix de Guerre (Cross of War) decoration.
However, James missed it. He was lingering in agony at a military hospital in Royat, France, his lungs seared and scarred by the poison mustard gas. After more than a month of enduring pain, Sgt. James Monroe Finn passed away on June 19, 1918. He was buried in the American military cemetery at Clermont-Ferrand.
In 1949, his family applied to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs for a flat military memorial stone to be placed as a cenotaph at Granby Memorial Cemetery. The request was granted.
As far as I know, James Finn’s actual remains are still in France.
Sgt. James Monroe Finn was one of more than 116,500 Americans who died of all causes in World War I, and one of more than 11,000 Missourians who were killed or wounded.
If ever you get a chance, stop by his stone in Granby Memorial Cemetery and pay respect.
By Wes Franklin
(Wes Franklin can be reached at (417) 658-8443.)