Flag Honors Irish Immigrant

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It looks like an ordinary flag, but it is not.  It is the coffin flag of one of my immigrant ancestors, and he is honored by its flight above the Chester County Historical Society.

 Claude H. Alexander was born in Dublin in 1894, the third son born to Joseph Fisher Alexander and his wife Kathleen.  Joseph was a civil engineer and work was hard to find in Ireland, so he took a job designing bridges for the Union Pacific Railroad in Quebec. His wife and two older sons went with him in 1905 to Canada; Claude and his younger brother were left behind with his Aunt Edie.

 My great uncle was quite a character, while many Irish were eager to drop their brogue, Claude kept it throughout his life.  He had a natural charm about him, and could recite poetry and sing songs by the hour. He also was an ace at card tricks. I spent many hours playing cribbage with him and listening to his stories when he convalesced at our home in later years.

 One day he showed me his lucky English penny. The story behind it was about how he got in line for a ticket to rejoin the family, now in Philadelphia.  He had just enough money to book passage on the elegant new ship called the Titanic. The penny dropped out of his pocket, as he chased it down the street, he lost his place in line and a chance for a ticket. I thought my Uncle has surely kissed the blarney stone on this story until I discovered by reviewing ships passenger’s lists, that he had embarked from Queensland in March of 1911 the same week as the fateful launch of the Titanic!

 At the age of 16 he arrived in Philadelphia with letters of recommendation upon his completion of a two year apprenticeship as a mechanical engineer. He easily found work with J. Jacob Shannon & Co. in Philadelphia. 

Kathleen Alexander with two of her sons, Claude and George, ca. 1915.


 When President Wilson called for troops, Claude and his brother George (my grandfather) enlisted in the Army Signal Corp in November of 1917.  Good mechanics were needed for the fledging air force and both brothers were assigned to the 163rd Aero Squadron headed to France.

Boot camp, San Antonio, Texas, 1917. Claude Alexander standing far right; George Alexander middle row second from right.

 Claude served as mechanic and gunner abroad the DeHaviland-4 aircraft in the unit. Sargent George Alexander, was the chief mechanic responsible for getting forty planes in the air every day.

 B Flight Company, 163rd Aero Squadron, Ourches-sur-Meuse, France, 1918.

 Claude Alexander with twin Lewis machine guns, 1918.

 Enlisted men were not allowed cameras, but Claude had one. He snuck off to the front to take pictures, while his brother answered twice at rollcall.  Claude captured scenes of devastated battlefields, different types of aircraft and life in camp.  When the war ended, their unit was sent as an army of occupation to Germany with the 354th Aero Squadron. The brothers were honorably discharged in July of 1919.

 Remains of Verdun, 1918.

  354th Aero Squadron, Sinzig, Germany, 1919.

 Claude Alexander on board ship headed for home, 1919

 One of the great benefits of his military service was the chance at citizenship, in an era when quotas made it hard for an Irishman to do so. After the war, Claude settled in Oxford, Chester County, PA, doing mechanical work and selling tractors.  His two friends, C. Alfred Winchester and C.C. Wig, witnessed his petition for citizenship. Claude became a naturalized citizen in West Chester, PA December 20, 1920 as can be found in the records of the Chester County Archives.

 Claude's place of employment in Oxford, PA, 1920.

 Not only that, he married a local girl, Anna Kling in 1921. Claude built a “Tin Lizzy” by salvaging used auto parts and the couple headed to Philadelphia for new opportunities. For many years Claude worked for the Frankford Arsenal. When the couple retired in the mid-1950s, they built their own home in Waretown, New Jersey and Claude purchased a cabin cruiser.  He obtained his captain’s license and took out fishing parties on his boat. With his delightful story telling ability his ship was constantly booked. His retirement was filled with laughter and fun on the water. 

 Claude and Anna Alexander, 1921.

 Claude's cabin cruiser, ca. 1960.

 He passed away at the VA in Tom’s River, New Jersey in 1978.  Although he lived in Chester County, PA for a short time, like many immigrants who passed through the county, he added to the texture of the fabric that makes up our community. And he did so in his own charming way.

 This is the story of my immigrant ancestor – what is your story?  CCHS is currently collecting stories of immigrants to Chester County for our forthcoming exhibition in 2018.  Please contact me at photo@chestercohistorical.org if you wish to share your story.

 Pamela Powell, Photo Archivist

 All photos courtesy of Pamela Powell.  See more World War I images taken by Claude Alexander below.

 Cavalry passing by the Moselle River, Toul, 1918.


  305mm Mortar, 1918.


  French built Voisin-8, pusher aeroplane at Ourches-sur-Meuse, 1918.


  Wounded soldier, Argonne, France, 1918.