Stitched from salvage: GI wanted a flag for his unit. So he made one

During World War II, Joseph E. Fennimore repeatedly risked his life as an advance scout with the Fourth Infantry Division of the Army. It irked him that the 8th Regiment, which moved rapidly, lacked a flag.

When Mr. Fennimore asked his commanding officer about obtaining a flag, "He just turned coldly to me and said, 'Don't bother me,' " Mr. Fennimore recalled in 2004.

Just a few days after that rebuff, Mr. Fennimore and his fellow soldiers captured a 30-foot-long Nazi flag, out of which he cut white fabric. Inside the auditorium of a small German town, Mr. Fennimore found a sewing machine and a dress blue jacket. Using small scissors, he cut out 48 blue stars and cadged some red binding from the floor.

"I sat down at that sewing machine, never having sewn in my life," Mr. Fennimore said.

"I sewed the American flag together. It was one of the happiest days of my life. When I showed my buddies the flag, they were thrilled."

That flag is among more than 50 that will go on display Saturday at the Sen. John Heinz History Center in the Strip District. "Stars & Stripes: An American Story" runs through June 14 in the McGuinn Gallery.

In May 1945, while the Nazis were surrendering to the Allies, Mr. Fennimore's regiment was in Wolfrathausen. He and his buddies gathered on a knoll, posing for a picture of themselves with the homemade flag. But, like many WWII veterans, when Mr. Fennimore came home, he put away his memories and stored the flag in a cedar box. He began earning a living as a marine mechanic.

His son, Chris Fennimore, host of a weekly cooking show on WQED, said his father did not talk about his experiences in Europe until he was much older.

"He was the average Joe. He had five kids and struggled to make sure we all had educations. He made $100 a week," Chris Fennimore said.

More than 40 years later, at the urging of his daughter, Patty McGrath, Mr. Fennimore donated the flag to the Smithsonian in 1986. In 2004, it was exhibited at the Smithsonian in a show called "So Proudly We Hail," which also featured the flag raised on Iwo Jima, one that flew aboard the USS Missouri in Toyko Bay when Japan surrendered and the flags that fluttered from a military commander's car when he entered Berlin.

Chris Fennimore recalled that his father first became involved with the American Legion while living in Brooklyn, N.Y. After he moved to Coral Springs, Fla., in 1977, Mr. Fennimore became a post commander, attending flag raisings, reunions and reviewing students' essays about the flag and its meaning. He was 88 when he died in September 2009.

"Part of his work at the American Legion was to retire old flags. You have to burn them," Chris Fennimore said.

When Smithsonian staff members authenticated the flag his father made, Mr. Fennimore added, they found that the white fabric had marks on it that said it was from Germany."

Correction/Clarification: (Published September 8, 2011) A headline for a story in Wednesday's editions about Joseph E. Fennimore, a U.S. Army soldier who made an American flag out of scavenged material while serving in Germany during World War II, gave an incorrect location for his hometown. He lived in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Marylynne Pitz: or 412-263-1648. First Published September 7, 2011 4:00 AM


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