When Timothy Westcott contacts an ancestor of a military veteran, he delivers news that’s more than a century overdue. The director of the George S. Robb Centre at Park University in Parkville shares with descendants how the center is nominating their ancestor for the Medal of Honor, the military’s highest recognition for acts of valor.
These veterans were denied the recognition due to race or religion during World War I, which was fought from 1914 through 1918. Westcott, the centre’s director, said he still vividly remembers one of the first families he contacted. “She started weeping,” he said. Then she told him that the family was aware of his acts of bravery for which he was never honored. The contact is now one of about 80 related to 214 service members the center has identified, Westcott said.
The three-member staff at the George S. Robb Centre for The Study of The Great War research heroic actions by those who are Black, Hispanic, Native American, Asian American, and Jewish, but has no authority to grant such awards. They refer their research to the Secretary of the Army or Navy, who can choose to start the process of posthumous recognition of those who served, said Westcott, who also is an associate professor of history, archivist, and chair of the department of history as well as holding other titles at Park.
The process usually takes about two years and since center staff only submitted the first recommendations about a year ago, none of those recommended have yet been awarded, Westcott said. The Centre collaborates with international, national, and regional agencies to promote the study and preservation of memories and service members related to the Great War, according to the centre website. “We try to find families, but, in many cases, no family is left,” Westcott said.
The centre was established in 2005 and is named for George S. Robb, a first lieutenant and 1912 Park College alum. Staff manage a service member database that includes names, short biographies, and photos of those researched and forwarded to the military for honors at gsr.park.edu. Their research also includes maintaining and digitizing Great War artifacts and facilitating educational programming in partnership with Park University, the website states.
George Robb, the centre’s namesake and his brother, Bruce, grew up in a small farming community near Salina, Kan. The two first attended Park Academy, the equivalent of our present-day high school, also located on what is now the Park University campus. The two then attended Park College, where George graduated in 1912. He enlisted in the Army in 1917. Robb, who is white, led an African American regiment (a widespread practice during World War I). The regiment was comprised of New York state national guardsmen known as the “Harlem Hellfighters” or “Harlem Rattlers.”
Westcott said the World War I centennial helped him conceive of the idea. In addition, he knew of a similar program for World War II veterans that was established during the 1990s. Westcott, a U.S. Marine veteran, also associate history professor at Park, said Robb is somewhat of a hero and local legend on campus and that many, especially faculty, are aware of his honors, which include not only the Medal of Honor but also Purple Heart, Bronze Oak leaf clusters, a World War I Victory Medal with four bronze service stars and three European awards, Westcott said.
Robb, who is white, received the medal for “extraordinary heroism” in 1918 while serving in France. Westcott located and contacted two of Robb’s grandsons for information about their grandfather’s service.
Robb was “severely wounded by machine gun fire, but rather than go to the rear for proper treatment he remained with his platoon until ordered…by his commanding officer,” according to an account of his actions that is listed on the centre’s website and is based on military records, archival information, and family accounts. He returned in about 45 minutes and “remained on duty throughout the entire night, inspecting his lines and establishing outposts.”
When he was again wounded the next morning, he again displayed “remarkable devotion to duty by remaining in command of his platoon,” the account states. He sustained more wounds due to a bursting shell, which killed his commanding officer and two company officers, where he then assumed full command and organized position in the trenches. “Displaying wonderful courage and tenacity at the critical times, he was the only officer of his battalion who advanced beyond the town, and by clearing machine gun and sniping posts…aided his platoon in “holding their objective.” The piece continues, “His example of bravery and fortitude and his eagerness to continue with his mission despite severe wounds set before the enlisted men of his command a most wonderful standard of morale and self-sacrifice.”
Robb died in 1972 in Topeka.
Joshua Weston, associate director of military research, said he must meet very specific criteria in researching the military acts of veterans whom the centre nominates for recognition by the military. The criteria are much more specific today than it was for those who received their medals soon after the war. Weston, who has been director of the Valor Medals Review Project since the beginning, has the tricky balancing act of instituting “practices essential to matching current-day Medal of Honor criteria” with information that’s more than a century old, according to the website.
Centre staff have become familiar with a common, sad fact about many World War I veterans they research. Many “did not live full lives” and were dead by the 1920s, Westcott said. Weston, an Army veteran, said service members both today and during earlier times, often are reluctant to share war stories because of the trauma. Therefore, many families were unaware of their relatives’ heroic actions.
Weston said the modern term, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was referred to as “shell shock” during World War I. “We (veterans) don’t want to relive it,” Weston said, adding that such experiences “are ingrained in your heart and soul. It doesn’t leave.”
In addition, World War I veterans often died young died due to the effects of the war on their physical and emotional health, including diseases they contracted during service due to toxic gases and other hazardous materials. Like today’s military veterans, some died by suicide. Non-existent or inadequate mental health treatments during the early part of the 20th century, were either ineffective or dangerous.
Associate director Ashlyn Weber manages high school and Park University student interns and volunteers. Park Hill School District students work at the centre through a program known as professional studies. Students enrolled in the class are considering careers as educators and help staff with research, said Weber, the centre’s associate director, who manages biographical and genealogical research and has been director of the Valor Medals Review Project since its inception.
Her work has established the centre’s database, and she supervises a team responsible for the coordination of information from military personnel files, descendant materials and evidence from public and private collections throughout the country, according to the centre website.
Park Hill students are enrolled in a district program known as Professional Studies. Facilitator Natalie Barner said the program has been a great learning tool. The experiences “allow them to understand history through the eyes of somebody else,” she said. Those experiences are unavailable in a traditional classroom and textbooks. She said many of the six students who’ve entered the program continue through college at the centre as paid interns.
Beau Anderson, a 2022 Park Hill High School graduate, plans to attend the University of Denver to pursue a degree in history education, said his experiences at the centre helped “solidify my choice to pursue a career in education, and more specifically history education.” Barner said the experience will make him a more effective educator because it helps “his story telling abilities.”
In addition, Anderson said the centre experience allowed him to work with “a talented group.” He added, “I was always checked on. I felt comfortable talking to staff and I always was met with such a positive and welcoming attitude.”