Battalion’s ‘tontine’ adds friendly competition to annual reunions

  • Members of the 2nd Battalion of the 104th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment gathered at the Millers Falls Rod & Gun Club on Saturday for their annual reunion. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

  • Jim Wile created the 2nd Battalion of the 104th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment’s “tontine,” which is a friendly survivor’s competition that encourages members of the regiment to attend annual reunions. STAFF PHOTO/CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/26/2021 3:52:12 PM

TURNERS FALLS — The 2nd Battalion of the 104th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment hosts a reunion once a year around the region to check in on old friends and tell stories, all while participating in a friendly competition known as a tontine.

What’s a tontine you may ask?

One member of the regiment described it as a “last man survivors’ club.” Each member of the regiment pays their dues each year and the last five members of the regiment left living will split the money from the dues and the treasury.

Jim Wile, who joined the National Guard regiment in 1978 and rose to the rank of sergeant major, started the tontine in 1993, a year after the 2nd Battalion was retired and consolidated with the 1st Battalion.

“I came up with the idea and passed it along,” Wile said during Saturday’s reunion at the Millers Falls Rod & Gun Club. “We try to have a reunion every year.”

Wile said the rules are simple: it cost $1 to join when the tontine started, and from that point on, it’s $2 in dues each year. Infantry members must also attend five reunions in a decade to remain in the tontine. The catch, Wile said, is there are no reminders when dues need to be paid.

“Unless you ask, we don’t tell you,” Wile said. “It’s on you to remember.”

Those eliminated from the tontine are still warmly welcomed at the reunions, but once you’re out of the money, you’re out for good.

Wile said the competition began with 213 members and it is now down to 43. He added some people lost interest after the first few years and others left the area.

“There was a big drop off in the last few years,” Wile said. “Some people moved on and other people passed on.”

Instead of going down to the last man, Wile decided there will be five winners and they can claim the money once they complete a ceremonial process to honor the “Army of the Berkshires,” the nickname given to the battalion as it covered all of Western Massachusetts.

“They have to go to the site of each site of the National Guard and toast the memory of their fellow soldiers,” Wile said. “They can do it with water or champagne.”

Wile said the tontine provides a little extra incentive to get all the guys together and reflect on their time — and maybe add some exaggerated details to their stories in the process.

“It’s a great time to get to get together and embellish on all the lies,” Wile joked. “We worked hard together. ... We remember mostly the good times. ”

The 2nd Battalion of the 104th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment traces its roots back to the 1600s as one of the oldest components of the U.S. Armed Forces. The battalion served the nation from colonial times, through the American Revolution and eventually to peacekeeping operations in Bosnia in the 1990s (under the 1st Battalion’s banner), according the Massachusetts National Guard’s website.

The battalion reunites every year across Western Massachusetts in cities and towns like Chicopee, Pittsfield and Adams. Wile said they “gave everyone a pass” last year because COVID forced the reunion to be canceled. The reunions consist of social time for the guys to reconnect, have a meal, and a brief meeting to discuss regiment business.

Fellow battalion member Joe Coll, who served until 1999, said they “were a great infantry unit.”

“It was fun representing Western Mass.,” Coll said. “It’s just great getting together.”

Coll said the tontine is a great way to encourage people to attend the reunion and joked he was lucky he joined the battalion later than the other members.

“I’m one of the youngest members here,” Coll joked. “There’s a lot of good guys.”

John Moran, who joined the battalion in 1971, said the tontine “is a good excuse” to get everyone under the same roof again. Much like Wile, Moran said he loves hearing how people embellish their stories each time, despite them all serving together.

“We talk about the good times,” Moran said. “The war stories get better every year.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com or 413-930-4081.




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