A new film explores the newly discovered underground cities in northern France where World War I soldiers on both sides of the bloody trenches of the Western Front took refuge. The film brings to light not only the limestone quarries that served as shelter for thousands of troops but also traces a mystery about Native American carvings that were found on the rock walls back to Pleasant Point.
Americans Underground: Secret City of WWI, a film produced for The Smithsonian Channel, follows Jeff Gusky, a doctor, photographer and explorer, as he explores quarries found under a French farm field nearly 100 years after the war. There he finds chiseled in the rock drawings, self-portraits and the names of towns like Manchester, N.H., and South Brewer, Maine, along with names of the soldiers, including Ralph Moan of East Machias. During the war Moan kept a diary about the close combat fighting and running the gauntlet. The diary ends in March 1918 with the words, "All we see is HELL."
Working with military historians in the U.S., Gusky traces the soldiers as being part of the 26th Infantry Division, known as the Yankee Division, which had 28,000 men, with about 2,000 from Maine. The Yankee Division fought in the battle of Belleau Wood, where 3,000 of them were killed or wounded in July 1918 to take just a piece of ground, and in the Meuse-Argonne offensive during October and November, the deadliest campaign in U.S. history, with over 125,000 men lost to combat or disease.
While life on the Western Front was dehumanized by the constant artillery firing, below ground the soldiers created a world where they could be human. In one section of the caves Gusky and other searchers found Native American drawings on the wall, including a birchbark canoe and a Native in uniform wearing a headdress. Working with military historians he finds out that there were nine Passamaquoddys from Pleasant Point in the Yankee Division as part of Company I, which included soldiers from the Eastport and Calais areas. During the last days of the war, members of the Passamaquoddy squad were attacking German strong points. Among those who were killed was Moses Neptune, the son of the Passamaquoddy chief at Pleasant Point, who was killed on the last day of the war. His family received a letter from him, telling how he was sending money to them, two weeks after they were notified he had been killed.
To determine whether the drawings on the walls were by Passamaquoddys, the researchers met with tribal historian Donald Soctomah, showing him a photo of the birchbark canoe that was carved into the wall. Soctomah sees that on the canoe is a traditional Passamaquoddy symbol that is similar in design to a backwards Nazi swastika, confirming that the Passamaquoddys were in the underground cities. For the tribe, the sacred symbol means peace, friendship and unity among your comrades. "It would bond the tribal soldiers together with the other soldiers" and would be used as a symbol for protection, he says. Tribal members wore that symbol "quite a lot in the early 1900s," and he has a photo of a chief wearing the symbol. However, because of the similarity with the Nazi swastika it was no longer worn during World War II.
Passamaquoddys volunteered to serve during WWI even though they and other Natives were not considered U.S. citizens until 1924 and could not vote. Soctomah believes they fought for their country in WWI because "they were protecting the homeland. They felt the homeland was in danger."
Along with the nine Passamaquoddys in the Yankee division, there were a total of 25 Passamaquoddys who served during WWI, with some serving in the armed forces of Canada, which entered the war before the U.S. did in 1917. Two Passamaquoddys in Company I, Charles Lola and Moses Neptune, were killed in France, and two in the Canadian forces, John Polis and George Moore, also were killed.
The film documents how the six Passamaquoddys in Company I who were wounded or killed during the war never received recognition for their service until nearly 100 years later. At a ceremony last July at Indian Township, family members of the soldiers were presented with military service medals and decorated eagle feathers to honor their service. Among those honored posthumously were Moses Neptune, age 19, who was killed in the Argonne on November 10, 1918; and Charles Lola, 22, who as killed in battle and posthumously received the Croix de Guerre of France for remarkable courage and tenacity in defending an advance post. Those who were wounded were Samuel Dana, who lost a leg, George Stevens Sr., Henry Sockbeson and David Sopiel.
Soctomah, some other some tribal members, including two granddaughters of WWI veterans, and Eastport veterans attended the premiere of the film at the Maine Historical Society in Portland on March 7. Soctomah is planning on showing the film in Pleasant Point, Eastport and Calais.
This month marks the 100th anniversary of the U.S. entry into WWI, and Soctomah notes that the Maine State Museum in Augusta will be having an exhibit on WWI veterans that will include photos and artifacts from tribal veterans and that the Maine Historical Society also has a display on WWI veterans.