Local History

A Soldierly Salute

Exploring the stories behind some of South County's war memorials

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I’ve noticed many plaques and monuments in and around South Kingstown honoring veterans. They’re in the foyer at the high school, at the Dale Carlia intersection and outside the YMCA. There seem to be numerous tributes existing mutely, blending in to our everyday scenery, so easily overlooked. I wondered if a full accounting existed, so I called town clerk Dale Holberton who then emailed a Veterans Memorial Commission Report dated 1987, which documented the war memorials in town at the time.

This inventory prompted even more questions, and my investigation began. I dug through files and yearbooks at the Peace Dale Library, visited gravesites, trolled the Internet, studied photocopied clippings, even used the services of an amateur genealogist. In the process, I unearthed a fascinating collection of stories about notable veterans from our area.

First up are two men who have received the Medal of Honor: Marine Corps Corporal David Champagne and Army Sergeant William Grant Fournier. The Medal of Honor is the highest military decoration awarded to members of the United States Armed Services. It’s conferred upon those who distinguish themselves through “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty while engaged in an action against an enemy of the United States.” Because of its rigorous selection criteria, the Medal of Honor is often awarded posthumously, with over half of all awards since WWII given to individuals who were deceased. Since its authorization during the Civil War, just 3,476 Medals of Honor have been awarded.

Corporal David Champagne
The son of Mr. and Mrs. Bernard L. Champagne of Wakefield, Corporal David Champagne was a 1951 graduate of South Kingstown High School. One needs to look no further than this excerpt from the Citation for Corporal David Champagne’s Medal of Honor, May 1952, to realize his great heroicism:

“Cpl. Champagne skillfully led his fire team through a veritable hail of intense enemy machine gun, small-arms, and grenade fire... When the enemy counterattack increased in intensity, and a hostile grenade landed in the midst of the fire team, Cpl. Champagne unhesitatingly seized the deadly missile and hurled it in the direction of the approaching enemy. As the grenade left his hand, it exploded blowing off his hand and throwing him out of the trench. Mortally wounded by enemy mortar fire while in this exposed position, Cpl. Champagne, by his valiant leadership, fortitude, and gallant spirit of self-sacrifice in the face of almost certain death, undoubtedly saved the lives of several of his fellow Marines.”

In honor of his sacrifice, the US Senate approved legislation in 1997 to name the new post office in Wakefield the David B. Champagne Post Office. The shadow box (pictured above) of Corporal Champagne’s military decorations is displayed in the lobby along with a plaque commemorating the dedication.

Sergeant William Grant Fournier
Sergeant Fournier was born in 1913 and raised by aunts and uncles in South Kingstown. He enlisted in the Navy at age 18 and served for nearly a decade before returning to civilian life. As America’s involvement in WWII became imminent, he re-enlisted in the Army as an Infantryman and was sent to the Pacific Theater. He was killed at the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. Sergeant Fournier’s Medal of Honor was presented posthumously at an award ceremony at the University of Rhode Island in 1943, and his family donated it to the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 916 in Wakefield. The following is an excerpt from the Medal of Honor Citation for Sergeant William G. Fournier, June 1943:

“As leader of a machine gun section charged with the protection of other battalion units, his group was attacked by a superior number of Japanese, his gunner killed, his assistant gunner wounded, and an adjoining guncrew put out of action. Ordered to withdraw from this hazardous position, Sgt. Fournier refused to retire but rushed forward to the idle gun and, with the aid of another soldier who joined him, held up the machinegun by the tripod to increase its field action. They opened fire and inflicted heavy casualties upon the enemy. While so engaged both these gallant soldiers were killed, but their sturdy defensive was a decisive factor in the following success of the attacking battalion.”

Brigadier General Isaac Rodman
His name can be found in the history books. A lifelong resident of South Kingstown, Isaac Peace Rodman was a husband, father, businessman and politician whose family owned Rodman’s Textile Mill in Peace Dale. With the inevitability of the Civil War, Rodman helped resurrect the local militia known as the Narragansett Guard. The unit, later known as Company E of the 2d Rhode Island Regiment, fought at the First Battle of Bull Run under General Ambrose Burnside. Governor William Sprague, present on the field, was so impressed with Rodman’s courage and conduct that he appointed him Lieutenant Colonel and then Colonel of the new 4th RI Regiment. After Colonel Rodman’s distinguished performance in the Battles of Roanoke Island and New Berne, President Lincoln nominated him for Brigadier General in March 1862.

At the Battle of Antietam, General Rodman’s unit took the brunt of the Confederate assault. After suffering a gunshot wound to the chest, General Rodman was evacuated to a field hospital where he died thirteen days later in September of 1862. He was the highest ranking Rhode Island officer to die in the Civil War. The Battle of Antietam is known as the bloodiest single day in America’s history with over 23,000 deaths. Considered a strategic victory for the Union, it stopped General Lee’s invasion of the North.

General Rodman’s body was returned home to a hero’s funeral at the Rhode Island Statehouse in Providence. His remains were escorted to South Kingstown and buried in the family plot in Peace Dale. A grand obelisk marks the hilltop grave (pictured below). The historic cemetery was nearly overgrown with weeds and brush until Boy Scout Troop 1 from Kingston, along with adult volunteers, worked for six hours in September to restore it to its proper condition.

The Pettaquamscutt Historical Society is host to a two-month exhibit entitled Brigadier General Isaac Peace Rodman – Civil War 150 to inform visitors about the sacrifice of one of Southern Rhode Island’s bravest. It will be open through November 17 at 2636 Kingstown Road, Kingston. Artifacts on display include his sword and a portrait replica from Brown University.

His name can also be found on The Soldiers and Sailors Monument in the center of Riverside Cemetery, dedicated in May 1886 to the town’s Civil War dead.

Colonel Curtis Abbot Eaton
The pretty plantings and rose bushes outside the South County YMCA might catch your eye, but less obvious is a plaque at the base of the flagpole (pictured below), which reads: “In Memoriam COL Curtis Abbott Eaton, USAF.” After a few Google searches, emails and telephone messages, I spoke with his eldest daughter, Andrea Eaton Phelps, now a grandmother living in Newport, who filled in the missing pieces.

She was 16 when her dad was sent to Vietnam as an F105 pilot. “The night before he left, I couldn’t sleep so I went to the kitchen where my parents were. I heard my mom say ‘This is going to be the hardest thing I’m ever going to have to do,’” Andrea recalled. He never came back. On August 14, 1966, notification officers arrived at the family home to inform them that Eaton’s plane had been shot down over North Vietnam. He was officially listed as Missing-in-Action.

“He was on a mission with two other planes. He was the third plane and he was shot,” Andrea said. “He radioed the other two that he was going to jump out because his plane was on fire.” Once he landed on the ground, he set off his beeper to signal he was alive, but the Air Force couldn’t rescue him because he was in hostile enemy territory.

Years later, his dog tags were discovered with human remains, but lab analysis determined it wasn’t him. The family still doesn’t know if he was captured or held prisoner. “We were told he was brought to a hospital and died there, but there are still no remains so we never really knew,” said Andrea.

University of Rhode Island
World War I had a dramatic impact on Rhode Island State College (now the University of Rhode Island). In 1917-1918, of the 562 students enrolled, 334 left to serve in WWI. To honor them, the Alumni Association built the memorial gates at the campus entrance on Upper College Road (pictured below). The gates were dedicated in June 1928, and rededicated in 2008 to replace the plaque that had been missing for many years. Across the street, a bronze plaque honoring those who served is affixed to a boulder of native granite. The names of 23 State College students who were killed in the war are memorialized. Twenty-three red oak trees were planted in the area, also, one for each man who died in service.

The URI ROTC Hall of Fame in the Memorial Union honors 21 members of the university community for exemplary service in the military. Among one of the graduates honored is General Leon J. LaPorte, Class of 1968, who was the Commander-in-Chief of US Forces in Korea while on active duty.

The Vietnam Memorial Bench sits outside the door to Mackal Field House on the URI campus. This bench was presented in honor of 1st Lieutenant Carl William Myllymaki III, USMC, who was killed in Vietnam in 1968. The names of 16 URI alumni and two staff members who lost their lives in the conflict are also engraved on the bench.