WILKES-BARRE — “The history of the 109th is the history of the Wyoming Valley,” says Sgt. 1st Class Christopher Keen, unit historian for the 109th Field Artillery.
The 109th has been in continual existence since 1775. Keen said it has battle streamers from the American Revolution, the Mexican War, the Civil War, World War I and World War II.
The unit also had soldiers who fought in the War of 1812, trained for the Spanish-American War and it was mobilized to serve in Germany during the Korean War. Eleven soldiers have served on different mobilizations during the Global War on Terror, which is ongoing.
Some of Keen’s responsibilities include collecting, maintaining and restoring artifacts for the unit’s museum, which is housed in the 109th Armory off Market Street.
With those responsibilities, Keen has developed a thorough knowledge of the unit’s history.
The story, Keen said, goes back before the American Revolution when King Charles the Second granted a charter to Connecticut that stretched westward to the Pacific Ocean.
“The government of the time, not being the modern model of efficiency and exactitude we enjoy today, then granted William Penn a charter for the colony of Pennsylvania in 1681,” Keen said. “This charter caused conflict with the neighboring colonies of Virginia, Maryland and Connecticut because it overlapped their territories, often by many miles. We, however, are only concerned with the northern border overlap.”
That land is what we now know as the Wyoming Valley. Keen said settlers from the Susquehanna Company started to populate the area in the mid 1700s, and built roads and forts to protect themselves from American Indians.
Keen said the 109th Field Artillery was initially called the 24th Connecticut Infantry Regiment. Formed in 1775, the regiment was tasked with defending the Connecticut settlements of the Wyoming Valley from Pennsylvanians (called the Pennamites in that time).
The series of battles fought between Pennsylvania and Connecticut are collectively known as the Yankee-Pennamite War.
The unit was also involved in the Civil War. Keen said there was a large build-up and encampment at Camp Luzerne, which is now the borough of Luzerne. Along with that was the mobilization of the unit for three months as the 8th Regiment, then another mobilization for the remainder of the war as the 143rd Regiment.
“Our soldiers were gone away through the whole of the conflict, seeing nearly every major battle, and even stayed after the cessation of fighting to guard a POW camp in New York City until all the prisoners could be released,” Keen said. “Two of our soldiers earned the Medal of Honor during the Civil War,” he said.
Marching through time
Change came to the unit at the beginning of the 20th century. The federal government sought to convert some National Guard infantry regiments into artillery. The 9th PA Infantry was among those chosen.
Keen said that was done to provide a certain number of units to defend the Mexican border against raids in 1916.
“Everyone volunteered, but we had more infantry than they needed,” Keen said. “Two of the infantry regiments in Pennsylvania were told they wouldn’t be needed, and the 9th PA Infantry was one of them.”
Since soldiers in the unit were disappointed, many were quickly retrained as artillery troops to serve. As a result, Keen said, that made them a field artillery unit as World War I began, a title the group has held ever since.
One thing that has not changed over the years is the unit’s focus on drill and marksmanship. Keen said those two aspects have been focus of the unit from the very beginning, and while tactics may have changed, the reasoning has not.
“We are a military unit, whose job, in part, consists of shooting and moving on the battlefield,” he said. “These exercises have obviously changed through the years, but we still qualify with our rifles every year, and practice not only moving in formation, but also to move under fire in small groups and while operating our vehicles.”
That focus also results in the possibility of some friendly competition. Keen said members of the unit typically compete against one another for personal bests. He said there are some state and national competitions, but he added that participants typically don’t go to compete, as it would take them away from their families and work.
The 109th Field Artillery Armory on Market Street by Kirby Park was built in 1923. Keen said the building was initially called “Riding Hall” because it not only housed soldiers, but cannons, horses, mules and other equipment of the regiment as well. The floors of the building were dirt so that horses and riders could be trained, while the bays served as stables and work areas.
The 109th Field Artillery Armory still houses the unit, whose history is clearly important to soldiers like Keen.
“It is a huge part of our lives serving in this unit,” Keen said. “There is history around every corner, and connected with almost everything we do.”