Ambulance Unit Distinguished Self In World War I
My father, Frank J. O’Malley, never really talked about his experiences in World War I. Now I can understand why. He was a member of the ambulance service moving wounded soldiers from the front lines to hospitals behind the lines. Trench warfare, machine guns, caustic gas and open slaughter were things about the war he probably wanted to forget. An article written decades ago by Edward J. Gerrity, former executive editor of The Scranton Times, in his column, “This Is My Town,” sparked my interest in my father’s service and prompted me to research his history. My dad enlisted in the service on June 15, 1917. He joined the United States Ambulance Service, together with 50 other young men who made up Section 581. They served so well with the French Army — in many of the most important engagements of the war from Dec. 25, 1917, until Aug. 20, 1919 — that many of them received decorations for bravery under fire. The brave men of Section 581 — including my father — were informally known as “Scranton’s own.” They marched away from Scranton one June day in 1917, but few noticed as they paraded without fanfare or band from the former Hotel Jermyn downtown to the Central Railroad of New Jersey passenger station just off Lackawanna Avenue in West Scranton. There, they boarded a train for the Army camp in Allentown. By the time they returned for Easter in 1919 it was a different story. Scranton practically declared a holiday for its local heroes. Police estimated the welcoming crowd on their return at 30,000 to 40,000 grateful citizens. There was a parade, bands blared and throngs of cheering onlookers crowded the parade route. According to Gerrity, Patrick F. McDermott, a Scranton man who had been cited for valor in World War I, related that “perhaps the most memorable of all days was April 20, 1919 — Easter Sunday (remember we sailed overseas on Christmas Day, 1917), when our ship the Great Northern docked at Hoboken.” Two years earlier, though, as the recruits had marched down Lackawanna Avenue to the Jersey Central special train in 1917, a hush fell over people on the sidewalks. All the white-apron produce merchants rushed outdoors to yell “good luck — God speed you.” The wholesale block crowd was joined by primarily female bookkeepers who waved to the fresh recruits, who themselves were shedding tears. At the railroad station, relatives fondly embraced and kissed their young soldiers goodbye. After weeks of basic training at Camp Crane in Allentown, the men of Section 581 moved to another camp in Tobyhanna. The many ambulance units there totaled thousands of men and the Scranton enlistees counted on getting a five-day pass so they could spend Christmas 1917 with their families. But on Christmas morning bad news came to the members of Section 581. They were ordered to pack up and ship out to Hoboken, New Jersey, the closest jumping-off point for overseas deployments. On Christmas afternoon 1917, Scranton’s Section 581 boarded a ship bound for France. The unit served with the French army for roughly 23 months. The entire unit was decorated by the French government for bravery. Members of the unit saw the worst of war in 1918, but established a great record of moving the wounded from the front to medical facilities. By the grace of God, members of Section 581 suffered no serious injuries and no fatalities. In 1920, after the war, my father applied for a passport for an overseas banquet in honor of Section 581 in Paris at the Palais d’Orsay. My dad was only age 23 when he departed to serve his country overseas. For this, I remain very proud, grateful and humbled.