Hometown WWII Hero: General

     The front page headline of The New York Times on October 13, 1946 read, “General Stilwell Dies; China–Burma Hero Headed 6th Army.”

Joseph Warren Stilwell was born in Palatka, Florida on March 19, 1883 to Yonkers natives Benjamin and Mary Peene Stilwell. The family had gone to Florida for a short time and returned to Yonkers where Joseph spent the rest of his youth.

Dr. Benjamin Stilwell had attended a private school on Locust Hill Avenue and then Columbia University where he received both law and medical degrees. A pioneer in the lighting industry, he was Vice–president of the Westchester Lighting Company,Vice–president of the Yonkers Savings Bank and a Trustee of the Hollywood Inn. Mayor William J. Wallin appointed him to the Board of Education in 1919. He served several terms as Vice–president and two terms as President.

In 1880 Benjamin Stilwell married Mary A. Peene, daughter of Captain Joseph A. Peene, founder in 1839 of the Ben Franklin Shipping Lines whose ships sailed between Yonkers and New York City. Mary was born in 1860 and attended local schools. Active in St. John’s Episcopal Church for 25 years, she headed the St. John’s and Mary Randal Memorial Home operated by the church at 5 Hudson Street. The Stilwells lived at 240 Palisade Avenue for many years.

When Dr. Stilwell died on March 18, 1931, while playing golf at the Hudson River Country Club on North Broadway, school board President Leslie Sutherland ordered flags on the schools flown at half–staff. His funeral service was in St. John’s Episcopal Church in Getty Square and burial was in Oakland Cemetery. Mary Stilwell died June 22, 1942 after a short illness. She lived at 293 North Broadway at the time of her death.

YONKERS HIGH SCHOOL

Joseph Stilwell, called “Warren” by his family, quarterbacked the orange–and–blue–clad Yonkers High School football team. The games were played on Shonnard Oval at the southeast corner of North Broadway and Shonnard Place. The team, captained by Arthur Otis of the elevator family, won the county championship in 1899.

Teammate George Donnelly was Yonkers City Marshall in the 1940’s and an other, Edward Fitch, Vice–president of the Otis Elevator Company, later lived in a house built on the football field.

On May 13, 1899, young Joe Stilwell took part in a sporting event at the Armory on Waverly Street. He placed second in the running high jump with a leap of 5’1“ and third in both the 30 yard dash and the 440 yard run. The Leake and Watts Band played and the girls on Miss Graham’s class team beat the girls on Miss Dodd’s team, 4–0.

Future 4 star general Joe Stilwell is 2nd from the left in the front row of this photograph of the Yonkers High School football team that won the Westchester County championship in 1898.

On June 9, 1899, a drill of the Yonkers High School cadets in white trousers and blue coats took place in the armory. Captain William B. Thompson, formerly of the 4th Separate Company (the equivalent of today’s National Guard), was drillmaster. Joseph Stilwell was captain of Company A and led the company in its drills.

A class day exercise for the 17th graduating class of Yonkers High School was held June 20, 1899. Class President Joe Stilwell distributed presents “of a character that created much amusement.” The class history and prophecy were presented followed by a vocal solo, a piano recital and general dancing.

Graduation was June 22 in the Assembly Hall of the Eickemeyer School on Waverly Street. Board of Education President Charles H. Fancher and Trustees Rudolf Eickemeyer, Charles Philip Easton and Charles R. Otis attended as did Superintendent of Schools Charles E. Gorton and Mayor Leslie Sutherland.

The 33 graduates were divided as follows; Classic Course (3), Language Course (16), Scientific Course (5) and English Course (9). Joseph Stilwell was one of the classic graduates and also one of nine who planned to attend college—he had chosen Yale.

The graduates wrote essays on the theme, “Territorial Expansion and What It Means to the United States.” Stilwell was awarded the $10 second prize and as class president, presented the class gift, a framed picture of Napoleon retreating from Waterloo, to the school.

Too young to enter Yale that September, Stilwell did a postgraduate year at Yonkers High School.

In her book, Stilwell and the American Experience in China 1911—1945, Barbara Tuchman tells of the many pranks played that year by Joe and four other students. When Benjamin Stilwell was finally convinced his son had done these things he is supposed to have said to him, “there is a nice place up the Hudson where you can play tennis.” She then goes on to reveal that a neighbor across the street was a friend of President McKinley and obtained an appointment to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point for Joseph. The Stilwells lived at 150 Warburton Avenue in the Locust Hill section and William Beer, President McKinley’s first cousin, lived at 12 Bell Place.

The Yonkers Herald reported on August 1, 1900 that Joseph was one of 83 of 158 who passed the West Point entrance exam and that his father would have to surrender him to the U.S. Army for eight years.

WEST POINT AND EARLY CAREER.

Joe Stilwell attended West Point from 1900 to 1904 and, according to Tuchman, ran track and cross country and introduced basketball. He coached, managed and played on the first basketball team during the 1903—1904 season and won a letter in football his senior year.

The newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant was stationed in the Philippines from 1904 to 1906. He then returned to West Point to teach Spanish, French and English, coach basketball, baseball, track, and was assistant to the football coach.

In 1910 he married Winifred A. Smith of Syracuse, a boarding school classmate of his younger sister Mary, and in 1911 was sent back to the Philippines before returning again to teach at West Point.

Entering World War I as a Captain, Stilwell fought at Verdun and St. Mihiel and came home a Colonel. After a year of Chinese language study, Stilwell and his family, now three children in addition to his wife, was sent to China, but in his permanent rank of Captain. Promoted to Major, he was ordered to the Infantry School at Fort Benning, Georgia, but soon was sent back to China for another three years.

In 1929, now a Colonel again, Stilwell was assigned to head the tactical section at the Infantry School. A student officer drew a caricature of him with a none–too–benevolent expression rising out of a bottle with 3x’s on the label and posted the picture on the bulletin board. Stilwell asked for the drawing, took pictures of it, sent them to his friends, and the nickname, “Vinegar Joe,” was born.

Stilwell was to serve yet again in China, from 1932 to 1939, before rising to later greatness and fame (and 4–star General rank) as commander of all American forces in the China–Burma–India Theater of World War II.

YONKERS TERCENTENARY

The famed General made the cover of Time magazine in November 1944. General Stilwell came home to Yonkers in 1946 when it celebrated its three hundredth birthday as a community. Mayor Curtiss Frank appointed a commission of 300 members led by former County Executive William E. Bleakley and Colonel Oliver J. Troster and the title, “City of Gracious Living,” was adopted. The city’s service clubs, headed by Miss Dorothea Genzlinger, sponsored a dinner at the state armory on North Broadway on February 23, 1946 and Stilwell was among the 1,000 people attending. Gov. Thomas F. Dewey delivered the principal address.

Former Mayor William J. Wallin, who had appointed Benjamin Stilwell to the school board and was then Chancellor of the State of New York, delivered a salute to the armed forces, referring to Stilwell as, “Yonkers favorite son of the armed forces, a symbol of the good, noble and heroic men who served our country in time of war.”

General Stilwell responded, “It is a great honor to be designated the representative of the servicemen and women of Yonkers who took part in the Second World War.” He thanked the people for welcoming him back to Yonkers, after so many years, with such a cordial reception in the “old home town” and said that George Washington would be proud of Yonkers.

On February 25, dressed in an Eishenhower battle jacket, matching trousers and no decorations except for his four silver stars on each shoulder, the General addressed the Yonkers High School students at in the auditorium. He said he was very happy to meet them and they were better looking and more intelligent than the students were when he was at Yonkers High School—a comment which brought a loud roar. He wouldn’t give advice, didn’t advise his own children, but said it wasn’t a bad idea to try to be a good pupil. Afterwards he stood in the hallway and spoke in a friendly manner to each person who approached him. He shook hands with the teachers and visited the principal, Frank Baker, in his office. Coincidentally, a Thomas Baker had been principal of Yonkers High School when the Stilwell was a student.

DEATH AND BURIAL

On October 12, 1946, at the age of 63, General Joseph Stilwell died in his sleep after being operated on for liver cancer at Letterman General Hospital in San Francisco and died. Flags in Yonkers were flown at half–staff just as at his Sixth Army Headquarters at San Francisco’s Presidio. After a private funeral service for the family, the body was cremated and the ashes scattered over the Pacific Ocean. Stilwell’s personal military plane with its three man crew that had been assigned to him in Asia, dipped its wings in tribute as it flew over his home, “Lianfair,” in Carmel, California. Among his survivors were his wife, Winifred, three daughters, Mrs. William Cox, Mrs. Ernest Easterbrook, and Alison, sons Joseph Jr., an Army Colonel who had been on his staff, and Benjamin, his sister, Mary (Mrs. Stuart) Wilder, and his brother John Stilwell.

JOHN STILWELL

The only member of the General’s immediate family then remaining in Yonkers was his brother John, a Vice–president of Consolidated Edison. For five years John had headed the National Safety Council and was honorary chairman of the Yonkers War Fund. He had received a letter from the General thanking the people of Yonkers people for their generous contributions. John Stilwell was also President of St. John’s Riverside Hospital and raised the funds to build the Andrus Pavilion on North Broadway, relocating it from the corner of Ashburton and Palisade Avenues. Repeatedly negotiating with Helen Benedict, the daughter of John F. Andrus who administered the Surdna Foundation, the foundation’s contribution to the hospital was gradually raised from $500,000 to 10 million dollars.

Assistant to the Chief of Staff of the Fourth Army Corps during World War I, John Stilwell rose to the rank of Colonel, by which title he was addressed for the rest of his life. He lived in a 30 room house on his estate, “Ardenwold,” at 1121 North Broadway, north of Lenoir at the Hastings boundary. He died in 1963.

—Tom Flynn

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