Remembering An Old, Forgotten Soldier : Krulwich Wonders... Once upon a time, there was a well-known American soldier named Williams Jenkins Worth. His monument still stands in the heart of New York City, but while thousands pass it each day, few remember the man who lies beneath it.
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Remembering An Old, Forgotten Soldier

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Remembering An Old, Forgotten Soldier

Remembering An Old, Forgotten Soldier

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And now we go back to even earlier wars. NPR's Robert Krulwich tells us about a soldier of great renown whose legend has diminished over the years.

(Soundbite of traffic)

Mr. ED HOCHMAN (Lawyer): Yeah, I figured we might as well go this way.

ROBERT KRULWICH: It's (unintelligible). We're now walking into - it's basically a traffic island.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Yes, they've actually widened it, which is good.

KRULWICH: I know this New York City lawyer, Ed Hochman. He loves history, particularly military history, and he took me recently to a little spot.

Mr. HOCHMAN: I'm pointing to a plaque on the ground. I've never been able to quite read it.

KRULWICH: We are standing on a patch of concrete between Fifth Avenue and Broadway, right where the two avenues meet. And in front of us there was this obelisk. It was a stone column about five or six stories high, with the name Major General Worth at the bottom. So I turned to Ed and asked, because I knew he wanted me to, who is this guy, Major General Worth?

Mr. HOCHMAN: Who is the great William Jenkins Worth? Is that your question?

KRULWICH: No, my question was who's General Worth? That was my question.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Well, let's back into it. For those who have ever heard of Worth Street in New York City down by city hall, it's named after General Worth. For those who have ever heard of Lake Worth, it was named after General Worth.

KRULWICH: He means the giant Lake Worth in Florida, and then, most famously, there's Fort Worth in Texas. That city is also named for General Worth.

Mr. HOCHMAN: General Worth was one of the figures who was very important in his time, and unfortunately, a generation or two later, is forgotten.

KRULWICH: General Worth is now so forgotten that his body, which was put into the ground underneath the obelisk, it's still there?

Mr. HOCHMAN: Yes, there is a body there.

KRULWICH: And just next to it they've put in a water pumping station. So there's that. And then there's a bus stop right above on the street.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Every day the buses go over it. Kind of sad to think about.

KRULWICH: Underneath the body is a subway system. So, every 10 minutes the remnants of General Worth get rattled by an N-train passing underneath. So the poor guy is suspended between buses above and trains below. And who was he to deserve this finish? Well, he fought against the British in the War of 1812.

Mr. HOCHMAN: And he becomes an officer, and he becomes a hero of that war. And he stays in the military.

KRULWICH: Where he helps run West Point, and then he fights in the Seminole Wars.

Mr. HOCHMAN: What's the Seminole War? No one even knows of that. It's the Florida Seminoles.

KRULWICH: S-E-M…

Mr. HOCHMAN: S-E-M-I-N-O-L-E.

KRULWICH: O-L-E.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Yeah.

KRULWICH: And after moving Indians out of Florida, where by the way, he was considered a rather gentle commander, he then helped move Mexicans out of Texas?

Mr. HOCHMAN: Yes. And he was a general officer by then.

KRULWICH: So, after three wars against the British, and the Indians and the Mexicans, he died of cholera at a fort in Texas. He was brought back in honor to New York City, where the fellow who designed the U.S. Capitol designed the obelisk.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Clearly, people still cared about this man that much that they - I believe the obelisk at that point was the second highest structure in New York City.

KRULWICH: And when it was dedicated, there was a big ceremony. But as the years passed, it turned out that the wars General Worth fought were not the wars we care to remember.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Going to war with Britain in 1812 or basically annihilating the Indians in Florida or fighting Mexico. I mean, this was somebody who served. He served honorably. He served diligently. It was a lifetime of service.

KRULWICH: And so, one night not too long ago, around midnight, Ed happened to be walking by the obelisk.

Mr. HOCHMAN: I was in the area and I said, you know, I like the guy, from what I know about him. He was a good man, and I realized it's only going to mean something to me. And I went to a little grocer nearby and I paid the $4 for the cheapest flowers that they had available. And I crossed, dodging the cabs on Fifth Avenue, and I took my little flowers and I kind of, like, tossed them against the obelisk.

KRULWICH: Because there's a fence around the obelisk, so you can't just lay the flowers down nicely. But just as Ed launched his flowers over the fence, just then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a squad car with two police staring at him.

Mr. HOCHMAN: And I said, oh, they're going to ticket me for, like, littering or something like this.

KRULWICH: And so, in a move very un-reminiscent of war hero and Major General William Jenkins Worth, Ed Hochman turned and ran.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Again, my first thought was not being arrested.

KRULWICH: But his second thought, a little while later, was he was just glad to have honored a man who did what he thought he had to do, like so many soldiers who are now fading from memory.

Mr. HOCHMAN: So, maybe there was a little bit of that of just saying, you know, thanks for the job well done. Certainly, General Worth, I think, deserves to be remembered as much as a rock star.

KRULWICH: Even if it's only you and your flowers.

Mr. HOCHMAN: Even if it was only Edward Hochman and a $4 bouquet of flowers from a local all-night grocer.

KRULWICH: Robert Krulwich, NPR News, New York.

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