Countless families in the States probably have or had an Uncle Sam. But how, when and why “Uncle Sam” became the personified caricature of the United States of America may be unknown to many readers.
After the fact, the 87th U.S. Congress passed a resolution Sept. 15, 1961: “Resolved by the Senate and the House of Representatives that the Congress salutes Uncle Sam Wilson of Troy, New York, as the progenitor of America’s National Symbol of Uncle Sam.”
Born Sept. 13, 1766, of Scottish-American parents in West Cambridge, Massachusetts, Sam and his brother Ebenezer, both in their early 20s, walked to Troy, New York, seeking their fortune. It has been said Samuel was especially affable and was soon called “Uncle Sam” by many. Samuel and Ebenezer built a lucrative meatpacking business, and with the Hudson River running past their front door, they soon built a dock. That was good Yankee forethought since the War of 1812 was on the horizon.
It was during this war that the origins of “Uncle Sam” took root. E&S Wilson obtained a contract from the U.S. Army to supply meats for the American military. Samuel Wilson was appointed meat inspector for the Northern Army.
E&S Wilson’s employees soon swelled to 200. Barrels of their meat were embossed with “E.A.-U.S.” Sam and Ebenezer had obtained this contract through a middle man, Elbert Anderson Jr., of New York City, from Secretary of War William Eustris. Eustris was himself an Army surgeon during the Revolutionary War, notably at Bunker Hill under George Washington.
Much of Uncle Sam’s meat was sent to nearby Greenbush, New York, where a camp of 6,000 soldiers was located. A good number of the men and women stationed at Greenbush knew or were acquainted with the outgoing Sam Wilson. They never doubted “Uncle Sam” and Eb would send them only the best quality meats. It is here we segue to the Fourth of July.
The most popular Uncle Sam caricatures were utilized for recruitment advertisements during world wars I and II.
There were literally hundreds of patriots — including men and women from Northfield — who served for Uncle Sam during World War II. However, their canned meat rations may never have passed Uncle Sam Wilson’s inspections.
Northfield has much to be proud of this Fourth and every Independence Day.
Harold Wright, a Northfield native, who died two years ago, was wounded in combat during the historic Battle of Pork Chop Hill during the Korean War. He was awarded the Purple Heart.
Michael Popowski, also a Norwich graduate, class of 1934, was a captain with the 1st Armored Division. The Norwich University Record received a letter from his commander in August 1944. “When the going was toughest, especially during the dark days at Kasserine in February of 1943, ‘Pop’ loved to fight, and that can’t be said about many. He has been in combat since January 1943. Kasserine, Maknassy, El Guettar, Mateur and Salerno. Now he can add, Cassino, Anzio and Rome.”
Popowski, who later became commandant of Norwich from 1958-62, was awarded the Silver Star and the Purple Heart, after he was wounded by shrapnel to the jaw. He became a full colonel and also fought in the Korean War.
Three brothers from Northfield, George, Ira and Jerome “Bill” Hatch, all served in harm’s way during World War II. Ira was stationed in Panama for 39 months teaching recruits jungle combat and survival skills. He was then sent to France with the 70th Infantry Division. After surviving the war, he also took part in the Korean War with the Vermont 43rd Division. He enlisted in the Army in 1942 and after training found himself aboard a ship bound for the South Pacific. It was sunk and the men had to wade ashore. He was an Army communication specialist and fought at Guadalcanal.
Bill Hatch, a lieutenant, was a member of the 168th Infantry. He was first assigned to North Africa and ordered to hold the Faid Pass, bordering the Kasserine Pass, during that historically brutal battle. His group was ordered to stay put, through the fighting, a rear defense as the remainder of the regiment fell back. They found themselves behind German lines as the Nazis advanced. Half of the GIs were killed and the rest taken prisoner after a lengthy firefight.
Hatch was taken prisoner. His efforts to escape were epic and heroic. He and his buddies were flown from Tunis to Sicily, made to march long distances inside Mussolini’s Italy. The Germans then moved the Americans from Capua to Germany, then finally to Poland.
The Nazis kept the Americans at POW Camp Oflag 64 near Warsaw, Poland. Hatch had dug “many miles, it seems like, of tunnels.” The Russians overran Warsaw, as well as the German prison camp, but they were not released by our allies in May 1945. They were taken to a new Russian makeshift POW camp.
Hatch forged a German pass. It worked, but just barely. He and his buddies escaped Russian machine gun fire to make it back to American lines. Hatch kept a record of war criminals, German guards, which he later gave to Allied debriefers.
Arsenio Fernandez, “Uncle Sam” to his many nieces and nephews, was a three-sport letterman at Norwich University, where he graduated in 1937. A special to the Norwich Record newspaper arrived in fall 1944. “Captain Arsenio R. Fernandez has been promoted to the rank of major. He is a member of the Fifth Air Force’s famous P-38 Lightning Group, ‘Satan’s Angels,’ actively engaged in combat” in the Southwest Pacific arena.
His brother, Julio, was a sergeant in the Philippines.
According to a Northfield News article, circa February 1943, Lt. Tom Mayo, an Army Air Corps pilot and Norwich graduate, was reported to be missing in action. Later, his mother, Prudence S. Mayo, received official word that her son was killed in action in an air raid over Germany. It was later learned that Lt. Mayo was downed over occupied France. A memorial service was held at the Northfield United Church. According to the Northfield News, “It was well attended. The service mothers and the senior class of Norwich University, of which Lieut. Mayo was a member, attended in a body.”
But Lt. Mayo was not dead. He was the co-pilot of a bomber when an engine lost power and the entire crew had to parachute over occupied France. Some of the crew survived. He was aided by French patriots, who helped him make his blood-curdling way past Gestapo and Vichy police into neutral Spain, only to be jailed by the Spaniards. U.S. diplomats were positioned on the Iberian Peninsula for just such possibilities, and he was eventually freed, probably with cash. Mayo was ferried to England, where he telephoned his mother — months after his funeral — and told her he was alive.
There were hundreds of men and women from Northfield who served Uncle Sam during World War II. All should have had their story told. This article could focus on only a few. “Uncle” Sam Wilson would be amazed that he somehow became the personification of this nation.
Peter Fernandez lives in Northfield.MORE IN Commentary
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