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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Conn. man left diary of WWI experiences

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – A Yale-educated lawyer with an incisive mind and precise handwriting, Vincent L. Keating carefully chronicled his experiences in the Army during World War I.

Then he came back to Bridgeport, reopened his law practice and entered local politics, rarely if ever speaking of what was known at the time as “The Great War.” ...

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BRIDGEPORT, Conn. – A Yale-educated lawyer with an incisive mind and precise handwriting, Vincent L. Keating carefully chronicled his experiences in the Army during World War I.

Then he came back to Bridgeport, reopened his law practice and entered local politics, rarely if ever speaking of what was known at the time as “The Great War.”

But two small diaries, a photo album, some official documents and what must have been a chestful of medals tell the story for him.

Keating’s son, also named Vincent, rediscovered the items recently as he was preparing his Fairfield home for sale.

“He didn’t really talk much to his kids about the war,” said Keating, 84. “I’ve been learning a lot reading his diaries and looking through the scrapbooks.”

A retired finance executive, Keating is donating the trove of memories to the Bridgeport History Center, providing a rare first-hand account of the world’s first global conflict.

Mary Witkowski, the Bridgeport city historian, said the material will form a key part of a World War I exhibit the center is preparing. This summer marks the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of what was optimistically called “the war to end all wars.”

The older Keating enlisted in 1917 and received a commission as a first lieutenant in the 26th Infantry, First Division. As a ranking officer, he was spared some of the horrors of the war, but he had a Zelig-like propensity to show up wherever the action was.

Keating was at Cantigny, France, for the first battle led by the American Expeditionary Force, as U.S. troops were known. He received the coveted Croix de Guerre with palm for bravery under fire, but his diary doesn’t tell the details.

And he was wounded, although the diary says little about that either.

“A shot came from over my shoulder,” Keating wrote on June 14, 1918, the day U.S. Army records say that he was injured in combat.

“I was lucky to escape with only a chink in my hand,” the officer wrote in a tight, pinched script. The wound apparently wasn’t in his writing hand.

He was at Pouilly-sur-Loire, in the heart of French wine country and the site of another pitched battle on Sept. 3, 1918. By then Keating had picked up a smattering of French, noting that he was “tres fatigue.”

His commanding officer soon gave him a brief three-day leave, on a form with the letterhead “Headquarters, 4th Depot Division.” The official notice reads “1st Lt. V.L. Keating has permission to be absent from this station from 9/25/18 to 9/27/18.” It is stamped by the assistant provost marshal.

The Bridgeport man is discreet and doesn’t record what he did on his leave.

The war’s end on Nov. 11, 1918, is duly noted in the small book with the striped cardboard cover.

“The big news of the Armistice has been announced, and the town went wild. There was a big parade of American and French, and locomotives blew their whistles.”

Keating did not return to his private life in Bridgeport until mid-1919. He first helped oversee the building of the grandstand for President Woodrow Wilson’s trip to Paris to negotiate and sign the Treaty of Versailles.

“There were many impromptu French parades and beaucoup noise,” during Wilson’s triumphal visit, the lieutenant wrote.

Once back home, Keating became a prosecuting attorney in the old Bridgeport City Court and married Mary Radel in 1924. The couple had three children, daughters Mary Coogan and Nancy Chambers, and Vincent, born in 1930.

Gov. Wilbur Cross appointed him to the state Board of Finance in 1935.

After a meeting with Mayor Jasper McLevy about city bonds on Nov. 20, 1936, Keating returned to his Fairfield home and fell down the stairs, hitting his head on a pipe. He died two days later.

“I was 6 when my father died,” the younger Vincent Keating said. “Sometimes, I wonder how my life might have been different if he wasn’t gone from it so soon.”

Information from: Connecticut Post, www.connpost.com.