CUMBERLAND, R.I. (WPRI) – Norm Malboeuf paid five bucks for a military war chest, imagining how its rustic look would fit into his home’s decor.
But he had no idea how many questions the empty trunk held.
“I’d like to find the soldier’s descendants,” Malboeuf said. “The way veterans are being treated nowadays, to brighten somebody’s day up and give this to the family that this gentleman fought for? I think it would be a great thing.”
The chest was bought at a yard sale a few years ago after it was pulled from an attic at an unknown location. It’s marked by the name Lt. W. E. Bennett.
If that thing had ears and could speak, what would it tell us?”
A similar Street Story in July of 2014 helped reunite Orie Brauer with his medals that had been lost in Providence. And earlier this year, another Street Story connected a 1932 high school diploma to the graduate’s descendants after the document was found in a crawl space.
We talked with a few military experts and a genealogy buff who helped us with the two other searches.
We believe the trunk belonged to Lieutenant Walter E. Bennett, born in the late 1800’s. As the trunk reads, he was a member of the 66th Coast Artillery Corp who was born in the late 1800’s.
A black triangle holding the letters AEF in the lower right-hand corner of chest indicate the Lieutenant was part of the American Expeditionary Force.
Military records show Bennett shipped out for France from Rhode Island’s Fort Adams in 1918, and fought in World War I. He possibly re-enlisted in 1940, but there’s no way of knowing if the chest went with him.
And as we zoomed into a handful of stickers from the American Railway Express Agency, we found another clue; A Pawtucket address on Glenwood Avenue where the trunk had been shipped multiple times.
We knocked on the door without getting an answer. So, we left a note – but we have not heard back from the home’s current resident.
According to the National Railway Historical Society, the American Railway Express Agency was a monopoly set up by the U.S. government in 1917.
According to the Lancaster Dispatcher, “the REA was the UPS or FedEx of its day.”
“But a loss of its business beginning in the 1950s ultimately led to its bankruptcy in the 1970s,” the article reads.
The trunk also includes a little war time sense of humor. A quip scrawled in black under Officer Bennett’s rank.
“It says buck private,” Malboeuf said, smiling. “Probably a joke.”
Malboeuf points out a ring-shaped stain on the top of the trunk that he surmises could be from a bottle of beer or something else. He imagines the trunk could’ve been in the middle of war time get together, a respite from battle.
“If that thing had ears and could speak right now, what would it tell us?” he said. “Invasions in France. And he survived.”
So did the trunk. But Lieutenant Bennett was born about 135 years ago so it’s safe to say he’s no longer with us. Malboeuf is hoping one of his direct descendants is around to take the trunk. If not, he will donate it to a museum.
“It’s an amazing piece of history,” he said.