The story of an American boy


“Bob: The Story of an American Boy” appeared in McClure’s Magazine in Sept. 1922. Written by Stella Burke May, the bride of Earl Chapin May, Rochelle’s most prominent author, it is the story of a Rochelle boy, Walter (Bob) Tigan.

Stella relied primarily on letters written between Walter and his mother, Katherine. An Irish boy raised with a strong Catholic background, Walter was certain of many things, but love of family and country came first and foremost.

Walter’s father, Thomas, died when Walter was five years old, Katherine never remarried. She raised her sons, Walter and Eugene, alone. Born in Rochelle, Walter followed his brother’s lead and lettered in football in 1908. The next year he attended school in DeKalb. Upon graduation Walter had one desire. He longed to join the military and serve his country.

At the age of 19, Walter became a midshipman and began schooling at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. It would seem that Walter’s dream was well on the way to being fulfilled, but such was not the case.

He was court martialed for hazing. Hazing was and is prohibited at the naval academy. Walter was charged with hazing a “plebe” or freshman. As a second-year student, Walter had rank over the plebe and therefore abused his position.

In Walter’s words, the plebe had insulted him using profane language. For Walter, this demanded satisfaction. He told the plebe to come to his room after supper. When he arrived, Walter commanded the plebe to “stand on his head.” An officer passed by Walter’s room and witnessed the offense.

When confronted with the charge, Walter confessed to the transgression. As the offense seemed trivial Walter anticipated a reprimand. Instead he was dishonorably dismissed from the United States Naval Service.

“Dear Mother: My dismissal from the service is to be read out at roll call tonight. I have been over this afternoon and had a long talk with the superintendent. He does not blame me, personally, but following the strict letter of the law, I must be the example. I am satisfied with my own conduct in the whole affair and not ashamed to go out and get a job telling that I have been dismissed. I know you have confidence in me and will believe I acted manly throughout. The whole brigade realizes that I’m the goat and sympathizes with me. Several have promised to help get me a position. I will send you a draft for $200 and keep the rest for a while as I may need it until I get settled. Lovingly, your son, Bob.” 

After several failures to have his dismissal overturned, Walter settled for a new future. For the next few years Walter and his brother engaged in the mercantile business helping to support their mother.

Things were going well until April 6, 1917. The United States entered the war against Germany. Walter knew the Navy was not going to be a possibility so he went into Chicago and enlisted in the United States Marine Corps.

After much paperwork, to offset his naval discharge, Walter became a Marine on April 15, 1917. He was one of the first three to enlist from Ogle County, all from Rochelle.

Walter received many citations and awards. Twice cited for bravery in the French Orders of the Army and authorized to wear the French Croix de Guerre; the Victory Medal; two Bronze Bars, one Defensive Sector and the other Aisne; a Gold Bar for Aisne-Marne, three major engagements.

A portion of the final letter Kathrine received was from the American Red Cross.

“My Dear Mrs. Tigan: I write to tell you of the deep sympathy of the American Red Cross in France in the death of Second Lt. W.J. Tigan, Company 81, Sixth Machine Gun Battery. He came to this hospital July 21, 1918. He died of gunshot wounds July 28, 1918 at 2:55 a.m.”

When many would have let bitterness turn them against their country, Walter chose another path. He died in combat, but not before erasing the stain of his dishonorable discharge. Today he rests at peace in St. Patrick Cemetery, Rochelle.

Tom McDermott is a Flagg Township Museum historian and Rochelle city councilman.

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