Saturday, May 28, 2016

In Honored Memory: Morris Lynchik Comes Home to Pershing Square

The Destruction of Ypres, where Morris Lynchik fell
As we approach Memorial Day, I thought it would be appropriate to tell the story of the first burial of a World War I soldier in our city and how it intersects with the history of Pershing Square.

What is now Pershing Square was no stranger to tributes to the military a century ago. The Spanish American War was heavily memorialized at the park in the early 1900s. Not only was a trophy cannon from Santiago, Cuba displayed, but the city's first piece of public art, a monument to the 7th California Infantry volunteers who died in training, dominated the southeast entrance. Memorial Day services, run by veterans of the regiment, were held in the park into the 1950s.

Just after World War I ended, Los Angeles looked to honor General John J. Pershing, the hero who had led the "boys" who had tipped the balance to the allies. On the morning of November 15, 1918 the City Council renamed "Central Park" "Pershing Square," over the objections of some who thought he deserved a grander honor. At the same time, a committee was formed to place a monument in the park "in honor of General Pershing and the American soldiers and sailors who participated in the war." That tribute would have to wait a few more years.

Meanwhile, all across the country, families of the war dead were demanding to know when their loved ones would be brought home. To process tens of thousands of scattered bodies housed in makeshift graves all over Europe and arrange their coffins for trans-Atlantic shipping presented an enormous challenge.

The other allies were mortified we would seek to bring our dead home. Due to expense, the British didn't want their own citizens demanding repatriation of their war dead. Meanwhile, the French were concerned that mortuary trains would be rolling toward their port towns for years as temporary battlefield cemeteries were exhumed, and were offended at the notion that Americans thought French soil wasn't a suitable resting place for their fallen. 

The French banned shipping bodies out of country until late 1920, while the US began the lengthy process of identifying the dead and moving them to centralized cemeteries. Our government gave families the option: they could choose to bring remains home, or have them buried in brand new American military cemeteries in Europe, with the promise of meticulous perpetual endowment care. 

Flanders Field American Cemetery and Memorial
Over 30,000 families chose to leave their loved ones in Europe, but most wanted the bodies repatriated. The first of these mournful reunions would be in the spring of 1921.

Los Angeles had lost over four hundred of her sons in the World War, but the first body to be returned to the city was a stranger. Morris Lynchik was a New Yorker through and through when he joined the 27th Division National Guard unit. He was a diamond cutter by trade when the US entered the war. Although I was unable to find out when he joined the Guard, or if it was as a private, by the time of his death he was a sergeant. Lynchik was killed near Ypres, Belgium on July 23, 1918. Sometime before 1921 his family, including two brothers who survived the war, moved to Los Angeles. 

In a city full of transplants, it seemed somehow fitting that for the ceremonial tribute to sons lost in the conflict, the physical embodiment of her war dead had never set a living foot in Los Angeles.  

Though Sergeant Lynchik's body arrived in the city on May 9, because of the large preparations he was not laid to rest immediately. On May 28, the third anniversary of the first major US engagement in the war, Lynchik's flag-draped coffin was set on the west side of Pershing Square's central fountain Square while an honor guard stood watch. 

Given that the park had been re-named after the Commander-in-Chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, and was in the center of the city, it was the obvious location for an event of such civic importance. Thousands were said to pay their respects over the next 24 hours. The Los Angeles Times recorded the scene with tragic flair calling it "one of the most somberly dramatic episodes in the history of the city." 

"Mothers came to stand within the circle of silent watchers and to weep for sons, who like Sergt. Lynchik, went bravely forth to find a hero's death in a foreign land. There were many men, too, for whom the flag-draped casket embodied the living memory and the noble sacrifice of a dead brother, son, or comrade."

The following day at 1pm a ceremony was held in Pershing Square. A chaplain and rabbi both gave remarks and then Mayor Snyder, whose own son had died in France, spoke on the sacrifices the fighting men of America had made for their country and for the cause of freedom the world over. A huge escort filled with different veteran's and civic organizations then snaked from the park to Rosedale Cemetery where Sergeant Lynchik was placed in a vault, safely stored for eventual removal to a new American Legion cemetery.

As the idea of remaking Pershing Square once again is in the air, I feel it is important to highlight the military significance of the park's history. Not only is Pershing Square named in honor of a hero of the Great War, but some of the city's most moving memorial services have taken place within its borders. Let's hope this is not forgotten when the time comes to determine the future of the many historic plaques and sculptures that call Pershing Square home.

COURTLAND JINDRA is an amateur historian and volunteer for the United States World War I Centennial Commission.  His "Great War" interest is largely focused on America's contribution to and remembrance of it.  Delving into Los Angeles Times' archives, Jindra has located numerous memorials to the war in L.A. County, the first of which being the renaming of "Central Park" as "Pershing Square" in November 1918. He is a passionate advocate for highlighting their importance, and through them the war effort writ large. 

1 comment:

  1. Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat war, again and again. Pershing Square is a living history lesson. TK