Mementos from a World War I Trunk

Nov. 11, 2018, will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, “The War to End All Wars,” or as we now call it, World War I.

 Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

Copyright La Crosse County Historical Society

In 2017, the La Crosse County Historical Society received as a donation the trunk of World War I veteran and Wisconsin native Richard Thornton (1896-1973). A donation from Thornton’s grandson, the trunk contained mementos from World War I, World War II and the Korean War. It provides a glimpse into two generations of military service.

Born in Chippewa Falls in 1896, Richard Thornton enlisted in the military on April 4, 1917, and fought in France during the First World War. Richard survived an attack on the steamship Tuscania, when a German submarine torpedoed the transport off the Irish coast on the evening of Feb. 5, 1918, sinking the ship and killing 213 people. He earned a Victory Medal with a citation star for gallantry in action and received an honorable discharge in May 1919.

A World War I German short bayonet, Richard’s memorial certificate signed by Richard Nixon, and a black and white photograph of Richard and his wife Elizabeth were a few of the keepsakes inside the trunk.

Here's a look at some of the treasures inside the trunk of World War I veteran and Wisconsin native Richard Thornton.

Richard’s brother Francis (1898-1963) also served in World War I. Later, Francis was ordained a Catholic priest. He served as a chaplain in the Canadian army in World War II. The donated trunk included two books of poetry he wrote, “Bitter Wine and On Wings of Song.” Father Thornton worked as an editorial assistant at the Catholic Digest later in his life.

Richard’s son James Thornton served in the U.S. Marine Corps in the Korean War. The majority of the artifacts inside the trunk came from James’ military service. After James’ service, he settled in La Crosse. Highlights include a 1952 Guidebook for Marines, with illustrated chapters on flamethrowers, pistols, and machine guns; James’ dog tags and marksmanship badges; and a Marine Corps dress uniform. The uniform belonged to R.E. Currie, an acquaintance from James’ barracks.

From newspaper clippings to clothing and military memorabilia, artifacts are an important aspect of our shared human history. A century after the Great War, what Richard, Francis, and James Thornton saved in this trunk gives insight into the times and people of the Twentieth Century. They remind us of where we’ve been and how the people of Wisconsin have always been active in the events that shape our world.