More than 650 College Point residents enthusiastically enlisted in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War I. They were heroes in their Queens neighborhood, whose population was about 80 percent German-American at the time.

The tight-knit community was proudly patriotic, and many of these native sons got high-energy farewell parades during which bands would play polkas and revelers would sing in German.

Then, the youths — with last names such as Breisacher, Mohrmann, and Schmidt — would go to boot camp to train to fight…Germans.

Meanwhile, other residents stayed home and worked in the local factories that produced materials — everything from gun barrels to rifle shells to submarine chasers to airplanes — that went to the effort to kill…Germans.

Such was life in College Point in the early 1900s. Residents loved the USA, but they also ate bratwurst, spoke the Mother Tongue, danced the waltz, and sang in mannenkorens, or men’s choirs.

James E. Haas reports on this unique phenomenon in his new book “To Honor Fallen Heroes: How a Small, German-American Village in New York City Experienced the Great War.”

The College Point native, whose sister still lives there, begins with an overview of the area in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The middle class neighborhood was known for its industry and the legacy of Conrad Poppenhusen, a 19th century magnate from Germany’s Hamburg who struck it rich with rubber before becoming a benefactor who donated land, brought in a railroad, and built the Poppenhusen Institute, a community center that still exists today.

It was also a summertime destination for day-trippers from Manhattan who flocked to the beer gardens and beaches. (Yes, the adjacent East River was clean back then.)

Haas also puts this hamlet in the context of the era’s national issues, such as labor strife, anti-German sentiment, espionage scandals, and an influenza epidemic. Then, he gets to the book’s main focus: Telling the stories of the 28 locals who died during World War I.

Presented in chronological order, these vignettes read like obituaries, providing basic information about the fallen heroes’ lives, families, and experiences. Some died from combat wounds. Others died of diseases. Suicide was also an issue.

To gather information, Haas, who graduated from St. John’s University in 1965, looked at genealogical notes, read books obtained via library loans, explored Ancestry.com, and perused old newspaper clippings. He shares some photos, but their quality isn’t very high due to technological issues. (Some images were scanned from Memorial Day programs from the 1920s.)

In a phone conversation, Haas stressed that most College Point residents were third-generation Americans by World War I’s outbreak in 1914. He never found anything to indicate that members of the population were rooting for the Germans. He also argued that the book is more about history than a certain geographic location.

“I wrote it about College Point, but it’s really about what the ordinary soldier, sailor, and marine experienced in the war,” he said. “You read the funny parts, the horrible parts.”

Haas currently lives in Maryland, but this is his fourth book on his hometown. His other works are “This Gunner at His Piece: College Point, New York & The Civil War, With Biographies of the Men Who Served,” “Conrad Poppenhusen: The Life of a German-American Industrial Pioneer,” and “St. Fidelis Parish in College Point, NY: The First Seventy-Five Years – 1856-1931.”

To Honor Fallen Heroes” costs $20 per copy with an extra $3 charge for shipping on Book Baby. It’s also for sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. For signed copies, contact Haas via email at jehaas@comcast.net.

Image: James E. Haas


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