Shortly after the first edition of One April in Boston: The Gift of the Spyglass came out back in 2000, I sent a copy to Bill Simmons in Honolulu, Hawaii. Bill is the oldest son of John Simmons — Philip Edwards’ best friend. John and Phil served together in Boston’s 26th “Yankee” Division. I received a beautiful typewritten letter from Bill telling me how much he had enjoyed the book and passing along other details about his father. Bill mentioned, “I know Dad loved Phil as you can love a brother. The death, and the fact that he was not with him at the time, affected him for the rest of his life.” He noted, “Dad never spoke about his WWI experiences.” Pressured to do so, “he told me a number of times about this one big battle…The Battle of Bunker Hill. I don’t know how old I was before I realized he was gently pulling my leg because he didn’t want to talk about his campaigns in France…and he was in five of them.”
The complete text of Bill Simmons’ wonderful letter appears below.
Dear Mr. Edwards:
Or may I please call you Ben?
Yesterday’s mail brought a package from my sister, Fran Jenkins, with a copy of your book, “One April in Boston.” I read it from cover to cover last night, and was much impressed.
Of course, I never knew Phil Edwards personally, except through mention of him within my family. I knew he was my father’s best friend, but Dad never spoke of his WWI experiences. A lot of what I learned was by eavesdropping on conversations among the vets at the annual American Legion picnic in Naugatuck.
When my mother died and we had to break up her home, I wound up with a lot of her memorabilia which no one else seemed to want, and which I felt shouldn’t be tossed out. When I came to Hawaii for good, I just couldn’t bring an excess of things with me, and I gave a lot of it to my niece, Carol Lawton, who was (and still is) working on a genealogy of the Simmons Family. Thanks God I did. I remember many years ago reading a newspaper clipping of Phil’s final letter to his parents before he was killed in 1918. And I had seen, and was so touched by, the letter my father wrote to Mr. and Mrs. Edwards after that.
I was surprised to see the picture of Phil and my Dad in their World War I uniforms in the book. I’d thought for many years that I had the only copy of that…which now hangs on my living room wall…but did find out shortly before my sister-in-law’s death that she and my brother had a second copy, which you obtained from my niece, Pat Risley. And there’s the copy of Dad, Phil and another youngster which you obtained from Carol Lawton, from the stuff I’d given her.
I never met Phil’s father, but I had met his mother on a few occasions. She was an elderly lady living, I believe, at the time in the Moodus area. As a small boy I can remember driving there with my Mom and Dad, and visiting with her. She was quite deaf, and had an old Gramaphone type ear trumpet one had to speak into so she could hear anything. I knew both my parents were very fond of her, due to the close relationship between Phil, my father, and the Edwards.
I’m aware that your story was in large part fictionalized, but I was amused by the tales of their fishing trips to Long Meadow Pond, a place I’d hiked to numerous times as a youngster. Dad was a great fisherman, and he taught me to love the sport, too. One thing I find hard to believe is that Warren Birdsall caught more bass the day of their bet than my Dad did. Hmmmm!
When I was a child, I always was fascinated with things military. Always pressured my Dad to tell me about his experiences in the Army…and he told me a number of times about this one big battle…The Battle of Bunker Hill. I don’t know how old I was before I realized he was gently pulling my leg because he didn’t want to talk about his campaigns in France…and he was in five of them. The combat vets just didn’t talk about that. Swiping fruit from an orchard, almost missing their ride in a 40&8 boxcar because of slipping into a village to buy bread at a French bakery, yes. But combat, no. So I got to hear a lot about us chasing the Redcoats back down Bunker Hill (Breed’s Hill) twice before running out of powder and shot.
Incidentally, Ben, my Dad came out a Sergeant, and he had one Purple Heart, not two…he should have had a second for being gassed, but a medical orderly didn’t list it correctly in his records (called it flu), so the one Heart came from his gunshot wound. Dad was cited in orders three times, and was awarded the Silver Star…which I have in my possession. I have his copy of the History of the 102nd Infantry, and have looked these things up. I also remember being told…and not directly by my father…that he was in the hospital as the war was drawing to a close in Nov., 1918, and “deserted” the hospital to return to H Co., 2nd Bn., to be with his outfit when it ended. Quite a man, my father.
Mostly from things my mother told me I knew how close he and Phil were. It really didn’t dawn on me what that closeness meant until later in life, after I’d been in the military myself, and could understand the bond that results from growing up together and then fighting together. I know Dad loved Phil as you can love a brother. The death, and the fact that he was not with him at the time, affected him for the rest of his life. You always wonder that, if I’d been there, I might have prevented it. I wish that he and I had been able to talk about his experiences. I’d be able to understand a lot more of the man I’ll always believe is the finest man I’ve ever known.
Thinking back, I was aware of the closeness between Ella (Wininger) Boardman and Phil. You pointed out in the book that my mother, Ethel Elliott, and Ella were close friends. Did you also know that Ella was my mother’s niece, the daughter of Daisy (Elliott) Wininger, the eldest of four daughters of my grandmother and grandfather Elliott? My Mom was, I believe, three years old when Ella was born, and they grew up more as sisters then aunt and niece throughout their lives. Ella was more than old enough to be my mother, but I always thought of her as my favorite cousin. But yes, they were best friends, too. The picture of my Mom and Ella standing in the mud outside the farm across the street from the old homestead is one I don’t think I’ve seen before. Right in back of them, where the old barn was eventually torn down, was where I built my own home back in 1958.
Probably by the time you receive this you’ll have seen Carol Lawton. I talked to her earlier today and told her I was going to write to you and ask to purchase two more of your books. One I’ll send to my daughter in Florida, and the other to a good friend there, who I’m sure will find it of interest. Carol said she’d pick them up for me, so I’ll be hearing from her, but I couldn’t let this go without writing and letting you know how much I enjoyed it.
One more thing. Back in the late 40s after I’d been discharged from the service, I knew of an Edwards, who lived in Bethany. I think his first name was Ben or Benny. He was a World War I vet who had been shell shocked, and never fully recovered.
At that time a small restaurant called Dick’s Dinette existed on South Main Street in Naugatuck, later wiped out by the 1955 flood. It had a small bar on one side, and the restaurant on the other…five cent coffee, 15 cent hamburgers, 15 or 20 cent pieces of pie. Anyway, it was a hangout for the returned vets.
Benny, and I’m almost sure that’s what he was called, used to come in from Bethany a couple of times a week, and some of the creeps used to tease him, actually ridicule him, because he was…Simple. It always bothered me. I knew he’d been hurt in WWI, and if they’d been through WWII why couldn’t they just understand and just leave him alone? One night when they were ragging him, I got into the middle of it, dragged Benny aside, and told them to bug off……for which I promptly got my clock cleaned. Nah…..nothing serious, but they did thump me pretty good. Or two of them did, til someone stopped it. I think most of the guys were as embarrassed as I was by it, but….what?…..peer pressure?….whatever, most didn’t want to get involved. Benny and I did go and have a beer together after that, but the next time I saw him, I don’t think he remembered. Whether he was part of the Edwards clan, your Edwards clan, I don’t know.
Finally, Ben, I really did enjoy your tale. I’d not heard of the Church at Belleau Wood, and wish I had. Dad was there, and he probably knew of it. Best of luck to you with your work.
And thank you, too, for your personal inscription.
Note: The photo at the top of this blog post shows, from left, Private Philip Edwards and Private John Simmons before they went to France in 1917.