On Veterans Day in Hell’s Kitchen, it’s worth walking to DeWitt Clinton Park and standing for a minute of silent reflection in front of the 12-foot-high Doughboy statue that dominates the entrance at W52nd Street and 11th Avenue.
The monument, the work of sculptor Burt Johnson, was commissioned by the Clinton District Association in the 1920s to remember “the young folk of this neighborhood who gave their all in the World War.” It depicts a “doughboy”, an infantryman, holding poppies in his right hand with a rifle on his left shoulder. The statue is mounted on a North Jay granite plinth designed by architect Harvey Wiley Corbett and inscribed with lines from John McCrae’s poem, In Flanders Field.
The Armistice ending WWI (known as the “War to End All Wars”) was signed at 11am on November 11, 1918 in France. The 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month was hoped to be a reminder for generations. It’s known as Remembrance Day in the UK, Canada and most of Europe. In the United States, the day was originally known as Armistice Day, but was changed in 1954 to Veterans Day.
America joined the Allied Forces in WWI in 1917, as Britain and France struggled to keep the German army at bay. The American Doughboys were involved in the battles of Ypres, Waregem, Kruishoutem and Spitaalsbossen in Flanders — and took heavy losses.
The dedication of the Doughboy statue took place on Memorial Day in 1930. According to NYC Parks Department, the celebration started with a parade from W40th Street and 10th Avenue (which was a heavily populated area of Hell’s Kitchen before the Lincoln Tunnel was built). James Gerard, the former US Ambassador to Germany, delivered the principal address. The monument originally stood on the park’s west side facing 12th Avenue, but was relocated to its present site between 1932 and 1935 to make way for the construction of the West Side Elevated Highway.
This doughboy statue is one of nine placed in New York City parks. During WWI the iconic image of the doughboy was used to rally support, both nationalistic and financial, to boost the war effort.
Sculptor Burt Johnson also created the statue for the Woodside Doughboy in Doughboy Park in Queens. He died in 1927 while working on the Clinton Doughboy memorial. He had completed the model, but his widow Ottilie came to New York to arrange the casting of the sculpture by Gorham Manufacturing Company and the posthumous completion of the monument. By 1997, the statue was in need of refurbishment and the Times Square Alliance and Mayor’s Office helped with the conservation work. In 2009, the City funded a renovation of the surrounding plaza with the addition of a flower bed. In 2014, the Government of Flanders gave $70,000 for the plaza’s care leading up to the centennial of WWI in 2018.
In Flanders Fields
by John McCrae
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow