Please take the time to read this.
"Thank you Mr Farley"
Nearly 100 years have passed since Private First Class Peter V. Farley was killed on a battlefield in France during World War I. Many things have changed since then, but the South Branch of the Raritan River still flows less than half a mile from his burial place in Califon, New Jersey. Almost every fly fisher in the state will at some time come to this area to enjoy the river’s excellent trout fishing, and in that journey, drive past Lower Valley Cemetery and the large monument of a soldier that marks Private Farley’s grave.
For a long time, I didn’t give the monument any special thought. I was either in a joyful mood on my way to fishing, or too relaxed on the way home after a morning spent on a beautiful stream to give much attention to a cemetery on Rt. 513 that looks pretty much like every other cemetery. It wasn’t until my friend, who is known as “the Streamer King”, and has a penchant for history, directed my attention to the image of the soldier that I started to pause and think on every trip to the river about the man who is buried there. That day, the Streamer King started a tradition that we always follow whenever we drive past.
An eventual stop at the gravesite to read the inscription informed me of the soldier’s rank, full name, and military unit served. His date of birth is inscribed simply as 1887 without a specific day, but it is significantly noted that he was killed in battle on September 26, 1918, just weeks before the armistice that ended the war. Standing on the grass near the grave, without the physical distance of the road and without my car to provide a layer of emotional insulation, I imagined the hardship and tragedy endured by this lone soldier and his family, and thought of the sacrifices that many have made so I could have the freedom to do the things that I cherish. I wanted to know more about Peter V. Farley and to gain a deeper appreciation for all of our veterans.
An Internet search provided census information, and the 1910 census shows that Peter V. Farley resided on Philhower Road in the township of West Tewksbury, a rural community of farms and homesteads at that time. His father’s occupation is listed as “Carpenter” on the official document, but no occupation is given for the then 23-year-old future soldier, and I’ve been disappointed to not find information about Peter Farley’s pre-military life. A visit to the Califon Historical Society, and conversations with the society’s friendly volunteers, turned up a rumor that Peter Farley is not actually buried in the location of his monument, but may actually be buried in France. This was a surprise to me, and started a new avenue of investigation that at least provided some likely explanations surrounding the events of Private Farley’s death.
A search of World War I battles shows that the date Private Farley was killed in action matches the start of the Battle of Argonne Forrest. American Expeditionary Forces played a key role in this pivotal battle, which continued until the armistice, and forced the German army from previously held critical territory. The AEF suffered enormous casualty numbers, with more than 26,000 soldiers killed, mostly in the early days of the battle, making this one of the bloodiest battles in U.S. military history. More than 14,000 American soldiers are still buried at the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery in France. These statistics seemed to at least give plausibility to the rumor that Private Farley was not buried in Califon. I contacted the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery with the full name, rank, and date of death for Peter V. Farley. A prompt response indicated that he is not buried there, or in any of the overseas locations administered by the American Battle Monuments Commission.
Local Califon historian Don Freibergs, current owner of Rambo’s Country Store, which has been in the center of town since one year after Peter Farley’s birth, was very helpful in providing me with a local newspaper article from the 1920’s supporting that Private Peter V. Farley is indeed buried where you see his monument in Califon. A call to the Lower Valley Cemetery revealed that although he was killed in the fall of 1918, Peter Farley wasn’t laid to rest in Califon until the summer of 1921. In keeping with a common practice in WWI, he remained in France for nearly three years until our military could undertake the large task of returning loved ones to families that requested a burial in the United States. Repatriating these soldiers was a logistical nightmare, and our military performed admirably and honorably, operating in areas ravaged by war, and in a world that was just beginning to recover from the historically deadly flu pandemic of 1918-1920.
I submitted a request to the National Archives in St. Lois, MO, and received a large packet of photocopied records regarding the return of Private Farley. These records show the correspondence with the military, and included six, handwritten letters from the family that are extremely touching, reflecting the long, heartfelt process of awaiting their loved one’s return. His father writes, “…if there is anything that we should know before the body comes, please let us know, as we are so anxious to have him come home to Califon, New Jersey, where he was born and raised.” Another letter, written by the soldier’s mother speaks tenderly of, “our dear son, killed in the war”, and reveals that he was the youngest of five children, never married, and the only child living at home when he was drafted. She further writes, “his father is eighty years old, and is hard of hearing and to understand, so he wants me to write again.”
Information from the National Archives spelled out more details. Private Farley’s body returned from Europe on the steamship “Wheaton”, which made many cross-Atlantic voyages to return several thousand fallen servicemen. The Wheaton docked in Hoboken, NJ, and Private Farley’s body, escorted by Private Lewis Cooper of the 18th Infantry, was transported by rail to the train station that is now used by the Califon Historical Society. Peter V. Farley was brought back to the house where he was born, until his burial beneath the monument in Lower Valley Cemetery.
What will continue to stay with me are the words of the parents in their last letter. In the midst of crushing heartbreak, they are able to express great gratitude, and typical of Gold Star Families, they reached beyond their own grief to show profound love and empathy for the other fallen soldiers and their families when they wrote:
May God bless his body and paddle it safely across the
sea, and God bless those that handled him with care,
and God bless the dear boys that are left over on the other side. May their names ever remain in the hearts of the people that are left. They have lost their lives for the world.
There are so many unanswered questions that will probably remain unanswered. After reading the parent’s poignant letters, I wish that I could somehow correspond in return, and say to them, “tell us all about your son”. We would have what must surely be the lost stories of a vibrant young life, instead of just the forever still monument.
In a way, the unanswered questions and dead ends surrounding the details of Peter V. Farley’s life and death hint of a larger truth. If we don’t value the stories of our veterans and make concerted efforts to know them, then it doesn’t take much for the knowledge of their deeds to fade with the passage of time. Looking through the census of 1920 is also a stark reminder of truth and the passage of time, because it doesn’t include Peter V. Farley. No one ever knew a middle-aged Peter Farley. He, like so many before and after, is left through the tragedy of war, young for eternity. It’s a cost that seems too great to bear, and needs to be recognized. Regardless of political persuasion or personal views concerning the wisdom or lack thereof of a particular military action, the men and women who serve our country are extraordinary people, and we have the human obligation to understand their experiences. The life and death of Private Peter V. Farley reminds us that the time to listen to their stories grows shorter and more precious.
We have parades and ceremonies, but on a deeper level, there are the small things that are more meaningful than all of the parades, ceremonies, medals, and monuments. There are the personal items left at graves across the country, at The Wall in Washington, and the silent prayers said by people who miss loved ones everyday. And for this soldier, buried in Califon for almost 100 years, who gave his life in the war that established the date for Veteran’s Day, the Streamer King and I roll down the car windows every time we pass by, and with deep appreciation call out what is meant for all of our veterans.
“Thank you Mr. Farley.”
This article was written by Chuck Coronato