The Homer Science Teacher Who was a Doughboy

By Martin Sweeney

In a few days, Americans will celebrate Veterans Day. Originally, it was called Armistice Day, as derived from the “armistice” or cease-fire called on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918, thus ending the Great War of 1914 to 1918. Veterans Day is an appropriate time to remember all who served in the military, such as the remarkable “doughboy” recounted below.

Once upon a time, on a shelf in the Homer Central Junior High School library there was a book this writer used when teaching about World War I. The title was The Story of the Doughboys: The AEF in World War I. It was written by Laurence Stallings and M. S. Wyeth, Jr. and published in 1963. Inside the front cover was this hand written inscription:

Best wishes to the boys and girls of Homer Central whose grandfathers were my comrades in War I.
Sincerely, Leo J. Bailey, a Doughboy, 1917-1919,
Teacher at HCS 1960-1964.

Chapter 3 in this book, “The Education of a Private,” and other portions are based on the recollections of Private Leo J. Bailey, who at age 23, “wearing thin barracks shoes and canvas leggings,” arrived in eastern France in September of 1917. His bayonet was wrapped in a newspaper because scabbards had not been issued yet. With ten rounds of ammunition in his belt, Bailey began training for combat. He said not a man in his company had ever fired a Springfield rifle or a firearm of any kind, and they “were woefully ignorant of the basic principles of the soldier” but were willing, he noted, to head to the front lines “to beat the German to his knees.” Sadly, I learned the book with its inscription was discarded sometime after 2009.

Before sharing his wartime experience in France, I should like to point out that a few months ago the Municipal Archives received a valuable donation from Philip C. Swarr of Homer. It was a bound copy of Bailey’s detailed recollections of his boyhood before attending Mansfield Normal School and before serving in World War I. Bailey was born November 28, 1894, in Leetonia in north-central Pennsylvania, a place where the Swarr family cabin has been located since 1948. The memoir was produced by Craig S. Cassel as part of his graduate work in American Studies at The Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg in 1994. Though Bailey was not born in Homer and resided in Preble, New York, when employed by the Homer School District, the fact he taught in Homer, attended church in Homer, and was an acquaintance of this writer makes his story, derived from these two sources plus another, particularly worthy of inclusion in our local history.

Bailey could trace his ancestry on both his parents’ sides to Ireland. During his childhood, rural Leetonia was inhabited by 350 people who worked long, dangerous jobs in the local tannery or saw mill, for the logging railroad, and lumbering in the woods. The only store was a general store/butcher shop where everyone got paid and purchased their goods for the week. Not much cash remained after the purchases since Leetonia was a “company town” and the monopolistic store was a “company store.” Leetonians eked out a bare existence. Many of the unpainted houses in the small community were owned by the Company. There was no indoor running water, and each house had an outhouse or “privy” out back. Rent was two dollars per month, which was a day’s wages at the sawmill and a bit over that for the tannery employees. There was a blacksmith’s shop and a boarding house for the workmen who labored from 6 AM to 6 PM every day but Sunday. Some men worked at lumber camps outside of town. There was a school, and the only women with paying jobs were the teachers, and they resided at the Teachers’ House. The school was the site for religious services. There were no clergy in town, and an itinerant priest came to say Mass twice a year. The Company hired a doctor and exacted a fee for his services from the wages of all employees. Bailey said, “Socialized medicine it would be called to-day.”

The school house at Leetonia was a two-room building where education covered first through eighth grade. The library had one hundred books. The school year was nine months: September through May. Bailey attended there for seven years, satisfying his thirst for knowledge of the world. In 1901, there were six children in the family and one cousin.

Bailey’s “Pop” was a “jobber.” This meant he entered into a contract each year with the lumber company “to cut the hemlock trees on a certain tract of their land, remove the bark and deliver both the bark and the logs to either the railroad track or the tannery or the mill.” This made him responsible for hiring his own laborers called “hicks” (a term now extended to include those dwelling in rural areas) and feeding them and several teams of horses at the camp site. The main camp building featured a kitchen, dining room, lobby, sleeping quarters, Pop’s office, and a commissary. With the help of his three sisters, Bailey’s mother did all the cooking and baking for forty hardworking men. It was at camps like this that young Bailey spent much of his early years, adding to his understanding of life’s vicissitudes. That included the heartbreaking realization that a pet dog that joins other dogs in attacking young cattle risks being shot. From some camps he had to walk five miles to school. A memorable nighttime sight was of a forest fire threatening the town. There were joys, too: fishing, playing baseball, berry picking, boxed lunch auctions and socials, and exploring the woods and streams and discovering the life therein.

After seven years of education in Leetonia, a twelve-year-old Bailey moved to Mansfield. His parents wanted their children to receive instruction at the Normal School there. Later, from 1913 to 1915, Bailey taught at the Maynard District School. He applied in 1915 to teach back in Leetonia but was deemed too young for the job.

On April 6, 1917, America entered the Great War in Europe. Bailey enlisted in the Army on June 1, 1917. He received three months of training at the Syracuse Fairgrounds. He noted years later that during the first two months, “there were about sixty marriages…which shows that they were fairly well received by the people of the city.” Bailey’s Company M and others of the enlisted ranks departed for Europe on September 5, 1917. In a letter to a Homer Junior High student years later, he explained that “nobody except a few friends and relatives saw them leave” while the first contingent of drafted men who left from the New York Central depot at the same time for a Long Island training camp had “thousands of people…on hand to bid them farewell.” Bailey was among those experiencing seasickness while crossing the Atlantic and keeping watch for any German U-boats in the area.

Thanksgiving Day, 1917, found Bailey in uniform in France. Every ten men in his company received a roasted turkey to share, along with the traditional fixings. By Christmas, 250,000 doughboys were in France. For many, it was their first Christmas away from home. Twice-a-day training consisted of hiking with full backpacks, machine gunnery and automatic rifle, bayonet practice, and trench digging. Pay was $36 per month, and $15 of that he sent to his mother to cover his life insurance.

In the two years spent in France, the longest Bailey spent in a trench was two weeks. It was May-June 1918 in the “quiet sector” between Verdun and St. Mihiel. While on “look-out,” his thoughts were of two things: home and ice cream sodas. He wrote, “We were always thinking of something to eat. We had considerable corned beef which we nicknamed ‘corned Willy’ and canned salmon which we nicknamed ‘gold fish.’” The bacon issued was 98 per cent fat, and Bailey would not divulge the nickname given to that delicacy. Though enduring shelling and the threat of gas warfare in the trenches, Bailey felt “we were the best fed, best clothed and the best supplied of any of the Allied armies.” A few days before heading to the front-line trenches, a Marine chaplain, Father Brady, gave communion to all who desired it. Bailey noted one hundred lined up “to receive what was for many of them their last sacrament.”

On June 6, 1918, Bailey and his buddies of the 9th Infantry provided support for the Marines who were ordered to advance on the German trenches in Belleau Wood. The Marines took a portion of the woods but at a fearful toll. The Second Division suffered 25,000 casualties, the largest of any division in the American Expeditionary Force. As the book by Stallings and Wyeth noted, “It had been the hardest day in American military history since the Civil War; yet it was only a foretaste of the terrible days ahead.” Ironically, Bailey recalled as a child in Leetonia reciting in school a poem about the attack of a Pennsylvania regiment on the Stone Bridge at the horrendous battle of Antietam in 1862. He stated, “I was very warlike and thought that war would be great fun.”

Nine days later, Bailey saw the last of the war “to make the world safe for democracy.” Hearing a shell coming closer than usual, he tried to leap into his dugout. The shell exploded twenty-five yards away, and he felt a stinging sensation in his right elbow. He said, “I felt my elbow and my hand came away covered with blood.” He applied a tourniquet to stop the flow of blood. At a field hospital, the shrapnel was removed, leaving a cut from his elbow nearly to the shoulder and well into the bone. One evacuation hospital was bombed by German airplanes. The lights went out while a critical operation was underway. The surgeon seized a severed artery between his fingers and held it until a candle was brought so he could finish the procedure. Upon recovery, Corporal Bailey was made Sergeant and was assigned to guarding war prisoners until the Germans signed the Treaty of Versailles. He arrived back in New York City on October 20, 1919, and was honorably discharged from Camp Dix five days later.

That fall, Bailey visited Leetonia and learned several of his schoolmates had been in the Army. He said, “Two had been killed in battle, one had died in a camp in Louisiana, and a few of them had been wounded.” As a student at Penn State on vacation in 1921, Bailey visited his Pop who was working then as the night watchman at the saw mill. A year later, the mill and tannery closed, and the railroad was torn up. In 1927, Bailey traveled to France with the American Legion and took in the sites where he had been stationed and wounded. He noted there were “acres and acres where men make their living by digging shell fragments from the ground.” He returned again in 1958, 1968, and 1970 with his wife Margaret Mary Loughery.

The Baileys ended up living in Preble with Leo teaching junior high science in Homer in the early 1960s when this writer was a high school student there. Bailey found that no one there was interested in his history except for another teacher, a World War II veteran named Charles Jermy. Bailey noted that a few times they had the faculty room to themselves and would share their war experiences. After retirement, white of hair but still spry, Bailey came back for a few years to share his experiences with Homer’s eighth grade American history students, who always were curious about the deep scar along his arm. He would roll up his long-sleeved white dress shirt and reveal what looked like two thin arms fused together. Ligaments had been severed which impaired his ability to use chalk at a blackboard. He did not complain, for, as he told the students, “I was one of the lucky ones; I came home.”

Later, age took its toll on Leo J. Bailey. Hard of hearing, he could not come into class to talk anymore. Infirm, he moved to Scipio in Cayuga County to reside with his daughter’s family until his death in 1988 at age 94. And as fate would have it, this writer had the pleasure of teaching a couple of his grandchildren when employed at Southern Cayuga Central School. It was a pleasure, too, to renew acquaintance with the venerable Homer science teacher who had transitioned from a lumberman’s boy in Leetonia to a doughboy in the First World War. When asked if he regretted the 24 months of his Army life spent in France, the smiling veteran with a twinkle in his eye responded, “NOT AT ALL. And would I do it again??? YES, INDEED!!!”

Sources: In addition to the sources cited, reference has been made to Bailey, Leo J., The War As I Saw It: World War I in France, a copy of the original bound transcript loaned to author Stallings and copyrighted in 2003, donated by Leo Bailey’s daughter Margaret Bailey Redmond of Scipio Center, NY, to Martin Sweeney, who in turn donated the volume to the Town of Homer Archives on 10/19/2009. This copyrighted volume is impressive for its meticulously detailed recollections by Bailey. 

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