Monday, December 20, 2021

Packaged with Care by the Elmira Red Cross Prisoner of War Committee

By Rachel Dworkin

On May 18, 1944, Mr. and Mrs. John Wronkoski were elated to become new members of an exclusive club which met monthly at the German Evangelical Church under the auspices of the America Red Cross. Their son, Lt. Edward Wronkoski, had been shot down over North Africa and been reported missing on March 29th. They were understandably relieved to learn, nearly 2 months later, that he was alive and well in a German prisoner of war camp. The parents and wives of the Red Cross’s POW kin support group welcomed them with open arms.

 During World War II, 100 Chemung County servicemen were held as prisoners of war. The majority were held by German forces, with just a handful held by the Japanese. Lt. Frederick F. Loomis, pilot with a bomber group in stationed in North Africa, was the first Chemung County man to be taken prisoner after being shot down on February 23, 1943. In his first letter home after his capture, received on April 28th, he assured his parents that he was fine and asked them to send candy, books, and model airplane kits to help relieve the boredom. His parents, Fred and Edythe Loomis, became the founding members of the Elmira Red Cross Prisoner of War Committee.

Over the course of the war, the American Red Cross delivered over 27 million food parcels to 1.4 million U.S. and allied POWs held by Germany. They did not send parcels to the Pacific theater as the Japanese refused to take delivery. Around 13,500 volunteers working at packing centers in New York City, Chicago, Philadelphia, and St. Louis assembled 11-pound packages of non-perishable foods like dried fruits, canned meats, condensed milk, hard cheeses, crackers, jam, sugar, chocolate, and cigarettes. They also sent special packages with blankets, clothes, medical supplies, and toiletries. The turn-around from packing to delivery was about three months and the Red Cross tried to time it so that prisoners received a package a week.

Sgt. Henry Pickel of Southport, held captive from August 7, 1944 to January 31, 1945, claimed that the Red Cross packages made all the difference. “If it hadn’t been for the American Red Cross, the food situation would have been extremely serious,” he later told a reporter from the Star-Gazette. The Germans only fed them a slice of bread and a bowl of potato soup once a day, and prisoners relied on the weekly food shipments to stave off mal nutrition. That wasn’t all the Red Cross provided. “They sent us food, clothes, and warm blankets,” Pickel reported. “Until the blankets came, we had been trying to keep warm with small, worn out blankets that didn’t begin to do the job.”

Sgt. Henry Pickel


Prisoners’ friends and family could send packages too. In May 1944, the Loomis family sent their captive son four tiny screwdrivers and a pair of tweezers so he could do watch repairs. In another package, they sent him a saxophone. The Frawley family of Elmira sent their son, T-Sgt. John Jr., a package with cigarettes and a photo of the family dog. Despite being forced to march from camp to camp as the Allied armies advanced, John Frawley Jr. managed to hang onto every letter his family sent, along with the increasingly worn picture of Tippy the dog. Loomis, on the other hand, was forced to leave his belongings behind.


Photo John Frawley had of his dog

One of the things that the Elmira Red Cross Prisoner of War Committee did, in addition to providing emotional support, was to help teach the families of POWs how to ensure that their letters and packages actually made it to the prisoners. Packages could not weigh more than 11 pounds and had to be clearly labeled with the prisoner’s name, rank, prisoner of war number, and camp number. Each package and letter was reviewed and censored by the American government and read again and approved by the Germans before being passed on to the prisoners. By 1944, the U.S. government began issuing special stationary for mail to prisoners and only letters which had been typed or written in block capitals were accepted. 

Stationery for letters to POWs

 The captured men and their families were all incredibly grateful to the Red Cross. While still prisoners in Germany, Lt. Frederick F. Loomis and Lt. Edward Wronkoski both had their parents donate $25 from their bank accounts to the Red Cross’s fundraising drive in March 1945. Lt. John McNamara, who had been sent home as part of a wounded prisoner exchange, also donated to the cause. After his return of Elmira in April 1945, Sgt. Henry Pickel spoke before the Elmira Red Cross Prisoner of War Committee, describing his captivity and thanking them for their efforts.

Monday, December 6, 2021

One Foot in Front of the Other

 by Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Runners in the Finger Lakes welcome the arrival of autumn—temperatures are cooler, the humidity is less oppressive, and the colors in the hills can be stunning. Although the Wine Glass Marathon (held since 1981) was virtual last year, this year it returned in person, attracting male and female competitors from more than 41 states. Today we take for granted that both women and men can participate in the event, but a look back at the history of long-distance running shows that women have had an uphill battle when it comes to marathons. The story of one local runner can be an inspiration to keep going.

In 1984, the women’s marathon was added to Olympic events. It was the same year that Molly Huddle and her twin sister Megan were born in Elmira to mom Kathleen, an artist, and dad Robert, a physician. The Huddles, including siblings Christine and Katie Rose, were an active family and Molly enjoyed both school and sports.

Star-Gazette photo of 18 year old Molly running the Elmira-thon in 2002
Huddle attended Notre Dame High School, where in addition to her studies she played on the school’s soccer, basketball, and track teams. During fall of her senior year, she decided to pursue long-distance running. 

Notre Dame didn’t have a cross country team, so after petitioning the district’s athletic governing board, it was arranged that she could run and her father would coach her. She became Notre Dame’s one-person team, representing the school in meets, and the five-foot four-inch Huddle not only won races but broke league records. Huddle went on to attend Notre Dame University, where she continued to set personal bests and win national recognition.

Since then, Huddle has proven herself on the world stage time and again. Her career to date includes 5 world finals, 2 Olympic finals, and 7 personal bests. She was set to compete in this year’s Olympic Games but had to pull out due to hip and ankle injuries.

Early in the 20th century, women were prohibited from entering races due to health concerns that sound strange to us today. One thing some said was that running would cause a woman’s uterus to fall out. The first woman on record to run a marathon was Violet Piercy of Great Britain in the fall of 1926. Her time was 3:40:22, a record which stood unbroken until 1963. Almost one hundred years later, the women’s record in 2021 is 2:14:04. Molly Huddle’s own record is 2:26:33, set in London in 2019.

The Boston Marathon, one of six exclusive world-class races, began in 1897. When marathons became popular amateur sports in the late 1960s and 70s, women were still prohibited from participating. It seems old myths persisted. The Boston race’s rule book did not even mention gender until the late 1960s, after a 23-year-old woman named Bobbi Gibb attempted to enter the 1967 race but was denied on the basis of her gender. She went on to unofficially run and clocked in at 3:21:40, coming in well ahead of many of the male runners.

The following year, Katherine Switzer entered as K. V. Switzer, using her usual signature. This time the officials didn’t notice her application. To run, she wore a baggy sweat suit. When race officials discovered she was a woman, they and other runners physically attacked her, ripping her race number off her jersey. Today almost half the runners qualifying for the Boston Marathon are women.

Boston Herald photo of Katherine Switzer running
Switzer became an advocate for other women runners. She influenced Avon and Nike to lend corporate support for women runners and women’s races, thus elevating the sport. Things were slowly changing. In 1972, NYC Marathon officials allowed six women to enter the race, but insisted they begin ten minutes before the men. The women decided to strike. When the starter pistol fired, they sat down and held up signs pointing out the inequity of the situation. This deeply embarrassed the race officials, and since then, women have been allowed to compete with men and start at the same time.

In 1984 the Olympics added the Women’s Marathon. Molly Huddle first qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. She was now part of an organization very different than a team of one. She has worked hard through injuries and disappointments. Today, in addition to running, she is elevating other women runners through a podcast she’s created called Keeping Track: Women in Sports . In her podcasts, she highlights the stories of women track and field athletes often overlooked in the general media. It’s just the latest part of the impressive career that Molly Huddle has made by putting one foot in front of another, something she clearly loves to do.

2021 from
Fun fact: According to her Wikipedia page, Huddle is credited in part for the female runner emoji.


Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Changing Story of History

By Rachel Dworkin, Archivist


If you’ve been following the news lately, you’ve probably heard a lot of brouhaha about critical race theory in schools. To be clear, no one is actually teaching critical race theory in American public schools. Critical race theory is a collegiate-level analytical framework for looking at the relationship between American legal structures and race and it is not being taught to kids. What is being taught is a history which complicates the narrative of American exceptionalism by including voices from marginalized communities like Blacks, Native Americans, and other ethnic minorities.

At its core, history is the story we choose to tell ourselves about the past. Although the actual facts of what happened do not change, the history, that story, does. Sometimes it changes as new information comes to light or as new perspectives are incorporated. Other times, it changes to fit the political or social needs of the day. No history taught in American schools has ever been a complete or even entirely accurate depiction of the past as it actually occurred.

The Chemung County Historical Society has a decent collection of American history textbooks ranging in date from 1859 to 1969. One of them, A Brief History of the United States (1885) was written by Elmira’s own Joel Dorman Steele, the man for whom the Steele Memorial Library was named. Each of these books have slightly different takes on certain key moments in American history. For example, here is how each of the books describes the signing of the Declaration of Independence:


On the 4th of July, 1776, the American Congress, then in session in Philadelphia, made the ever memorable declaration of independence, by which the thirteen American colonies declared themselves Free and Independent, under the name the Thirteen United States of America.

This declaration was a bold movement on the part of those who made it, as it was known that Great Britain would regard the act as treason, a crime punishable by death. When the members of Congress were about to sign this instrument, John Hancock, one of their number, remarked, “We must be unanimous; there must be no pulling different ways; we must all hang together.” “Yes,” replied Franklin, indulging in a witticism on the words, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.”

-Primary American History for Primary Schools by Marcius Wilson, 1859

This 1859 account also includes several paragraphs describing the ringing of the Liberty bell, the atmosphere of celebration in the streets, and how, henceforth, Thomas Jefferson only celebrated America’s birthday, but not his own.


Declaration of Independence (July 4, 1776) – During the session of Congress this summer, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, moved that “The United Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States”; John Adams, of Massachusetts, seconded the resolution. This was passed (July 2). The report of the committee appointed to draw up a Declaration of Independence, was adopted, July 4.    

-A Brief History of the United States by Joel Dorman Steele, 1885

This 1885 account included a series of footnotes. The first listed who was on the committee and the second included a humorous antidote about the ringing of the Liberty Bell. 


By the spring of 1776, after a year of war with their king, the feelings of the patriots had changed. By advice of Congress the colonies adopted State governments for themselves, and Virginia instructed her delegates to propose to Congress the adoption of a Declaration of Independence. Obeying this instruction, Richard Henry Lee, of Virginia, in June 1776, offered a resolution "that these United Colonies are, and ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.”

Congress appointed a committee to draw up a formal Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson, of Virginia, drew up the document, and it was presented to Congress on July 2. After some sight changes, the declaration was adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776. It was signed on that day by John Hancock, president of Congress, and a little later by the delegates of all the colonies.    

-The New Century History of the United States by Edward Eggleston, 1907

This section on the Declaration in this book begins with a paragraph explaining how the Colonists initially wanted redress rather than independence. It ends with two paragraphs summarizing what, exactly, the Declaration of Independence said as well as it’s reception by the British.


 King George III rejected the “olive branch” petition of the colonists, asking for a redress of grievances. Moreover, the King hired 20,000 Hessian troops and sent them to America. By this time, many Americans were convinced that there would have to be a clean break with England.

In June, 1776, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia reintroduced a resolution before the Continental Congress that “the United Colonies are and ought to be free and independent states.” Thomas Jefferson was appointed to prepare a statement expressing this principal. The Declaration of Independence was adopted on July 4, 1776 and signed by 56 members of the Second Continental Congress, led by the President, John Handcock. This date is, therefore, regarded as the “birthday” of the United States.

-Modern Review Book in American History by Allen S. Argoff, 1969

This book includes a summary of what was actually in the Declaration.

The authors of each of these books made different choices about who and what was important about the signing of the Declaration. They also made choices about which events were important enough to include at all. For example, A Brief History of the United States (1885) and The New Century History of the United States (1907) both include a paragraph about the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in 1619. Modern Review Book in American History (1969) has an entire chapter devoted to the history of African Americans, but Primary American History for Primary Schools (1859), scarcely mentions slavery at all.

What we as a society choose to include in the story that is our history can have a profound effect. A history which leaves out the contributions of women gives the impression that women have nothing to contribute. A history which ignores the impact of racism makes people less equipped to dismantle racist systems and a history which focuses solely on the role of so-called great men makes people less likely to see the value of collective action. Personally, I think expanding our understanding of history to include the perspectives and lives of multiple groups not only gives us a more accurate understanding of the past, but it can help us build a more inclusive future.