My Father

Today is my father’s birthday, February 25, 1923. He would have been 96.

I’ve often wondered, as I research Grandpa’s service in World War 1, what Daddy knew of this time in his own father’s life. Did they share, as some fathers and sons do, the accounts of war, stories of camaraderie among soldiers, duty to country?

If they did, they kept their discussions private. I never heard them.

My age may have contributed to this absence of war stories. Grandpa died in 1967, when I was 15, and too young to have any interest in wars. And in 1981, when Daddy died of heart disease, at the young age of 58, I was a very opinionated 29-year-old woman, a product of the Vietnam War era, with its extreme anti-war and anti-establishment feelings. I realize now, sadly, that Daddy died long before I could open my mind to the personal stories of war, to the very experiences that had shaped the lives of his parents. What had they shared around their dinner table?

The only person who might have shed some light on both Grandpa’s service and Daddy’s own feelings about war would have been Grandma. She outlived both of them. She obviously kept the letters Grandpa wrote. But she never brought up the subject of war to me. When I was in college, I do remember spending time with her, talking about politics, which certainly would have included the Vietnam War. She listened, but never offered up any ideas based on her own experiences.

I have a picture of the three of them taken on December 7, 1941, the day Pearl Harbor was bombed. This event, which led to American involvement in World War II, would present an opportunity to my father and young men his age to engage in the great war of their generation.

Pearl Harbor portrait

Grandma, Daddy, and Grandpa. Photo taken at a studio in Atchison, Kansas, December 7, 1941.

The next summer, on June 30, 1942, Daddy registered for the draft.

Daddy WW2, 1

Daddy WW2, 2

Daddy’s Registration Card for service in World War II. I found this on Fold3.

The American entry into World War II coincided with Daddy’s college years. In 1941, he had enrolled at the University of Kansas (then known as Kansas University) in Lawrence. Many of his classmates were called to serve. But not my father. According to family stories, he failed his physical exam. The doctors found a very slight heart murmur, one that might have gone undetected had he not been so thin.

He dropped out of school and returned home, which at that time was Nortonville, Kansas. And here the story I most want to know is missing. How did this small family of three take the news of Daddy’s military disqualification? Did Grandpa, an injured veteran, want his only son to fight? Or, were Daddy’s parents happy he would be spared the experiences Grandpa had known? Did Daddy want to fight?

The fact that I grew up knowing so little about Grandpa’s war service may be related to an especially painful moment in their family life. I picture a recognition, that the son wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps, serving in the military. It’s not hard to see the little community of Nortonville, Kansas, keeping track of “soldier boys” heading off to war and noting that Donald was staying home. Did my grandparents feel isolated, left out of stories of the boys heading out and the fathers reliving what war had meant to them? Easier for me to imagine is this: the report of my father’s heart defect certainly sent my grandparents reeling. Their first son had died in childhood. Grandma once told me, “It’s not right for a mother to bury her children.”

Whatever they felt at the time, and in the many years that followed, is a secret they held. They got on with life, that was their way. And that’s what Daddy did. He returned to school, quickly caught up on his studies, and began what would become a lifelong passion–student government at KU. Here’s a picture of him (back row, right) with the members of the ISA (Independent Students’ Association) Council. Daddy was the business manager.

Daddy ISA Council

November 1943.

Daddy went on to serve in KU’s administration as Dean of Men for many years. After his death, we set up a memorial fund to honor students like him. Here’s how KU decides on the recipient.

This award goes to a graduating senior whose campus contributions benefit other students. Recipients may not be the highest elected officer of an organization, but they are an officer or member who can always be counted on to see through a project, program or service. The recipient of the Donald K. Alderson Memorial Award is always concerned about the greater good for fellow students.

The great wars of the twentieth century served as cauldrons to shape the young people who fought them. But certainly there are other ways, better ways, to find one’s calling. I’m glad my father found his on a university campus. I’m glad, too, he never knew firsthand the horrors of war.

The Little Knife

One of the joys of this project is reconnecting with my grandfather. Small details in his letters bring back vivid childhood memories. That’s what happened when I read about the “little knife” he received in the Christmas box from home. I’ve already posted this letter, but want to call out the section that begins with “I got my Xmas . . .”

Little knife, cropped

From a letter he wrote Grandma, dated February 1, 1919.

My grandfather loved a good pocket knife, and I wonder if that’s what he meant by “little knife.” He found utility in a small knife that could be tucked in his pocket–to cut string or open letters or pry open boxes or carve out a plug of watermelon to see if it were ripe or help in any number of important tasks.

And he thought a child needed a knife, too.

I’ll never forget the day he gave me my first pocket knife, which may be this one. I found it at my mother’s last summer. knife-open-cropped.jpg
I remember a small knife, about 3 inches long like this one, brown with a mottled surface, and featuring 2 blades. I was looking for details on it to help me date it. All I found was the mark of the J.A. Henckels company, in Germany, with the distinctive “twins” logo they used between 1900 and 1969, when they added a red background to the logo and coincidentally stopped making pocket knives.logo 2

The day Grandpa gave me the knife, I was staying at their house in Effingham, Kansas, a little rural town of about 500 residents. Every summer, as a special treat, my brother, sister and I individually spent a week with our grandparents, enjoying their full attention. They let us work in their giant vegetable garden, ride in the back of Grandpa’s 1950 GMC pickup truck, squealing in delight as it bounced over the train tracks a block from their house. We walked “to town” with Grandma to get the mail and the latest gossip. Grandpa let us hang out in his lumberyard, and later, after he retired, in the poultry house, where I remember carefully gathering eggs from grumpy hens he kept in the back room.

Effingham lumber yard

Undated photo of the lumberyard in Effingham, Kansas. Grandma and Grandpa stand behind the counter. Mr. Demmon, whom I don’t remember, stands in front.

I never felt like a child during the visits, even though I was very young. Somehow, my grandparents created a magical space where I was an equal player in their charmed life. That meant, when it came to the little pocket knife, that Grandpa saw me as a mature and capable little girl, ready for a knife.

One morning, I was surprised to hear them discussing whether I was old enough to have a knife. I must have been 9 or 10, I’m guessing, placing this memory in the early 1960s.

“She’s too young,” I heard Grandma said. “No, every child needs a knife,” Grandpa responded. “She’ll cut herself,” Grandma offered, but with no success. I listened in, from a distance, excited to be at the center of such an important decision.

Grandpa gave me the knife. Maybe he opened it, and showed me how to use it. I can’t remember. At some point, I found a twig and began to whittle away the bark. And, no surprise, I cut myself.

Grandma calmly took care of the injury. I don’t recall if she scolded Grandpa (maybe he’d gone off to work) or lectured me about knife safety. She quietly opened the metal cabinet in the narrow hallway between the dining room and kitchen, a cabinet that smelled (badly) of ointments and medicines. I stood still while she cleaned and disinfected the cut before putting on a band-aid. And then we turned our attention to something else.

There was no discussion of taking back the knife. It was mine, and I treasured it for years, both as the handy tool Grandpa intended and also as a marker of the confidence he had in me.

Of course I wondered, as I read Grandpa’s wartime letter, with the reference to the “little knife,” and held my own, if the knives were one and the same. I would have liked that. But it seems, after a brief look online, that my pocket knife is typical of ones made closer to the second World War. It doesn’t matter, which knife is whose. The childhood memory is what I value, and also the thought that Grandpa, after fighting in a horrible war and being badly injured by a German machine gun, could find pleasure in the receipt of a little knife for his Christmas in France.

 

Valentine’s Day

In 1919, Valentine’s Day fell on a Friday. Around King City, Missouri, people were exchanging cards and hosting parties.

Valentine cards

King City Chronicle, 14 February 1919, p. 8.

The King City Chronicle ran this simple question in the February 14, 1919 paper. And the next week, they ran notices of parties like this one.

Valentine party

King City Chronicle, 21 February 1919, p. 3.

My grandmother didn’t attend a party. Instead, she stayed home and wrote a letter to Grandpa, one of only two letters that survive from their wartime correspondence. (*)

14-Feb 19, Gma, 1Her letter, which runs in full at the end of this post never found its way to Grandpa. The envelope records the long and unsuccessful journey–to Europe and back, over four months–as the military attempted to locate my grandfather.

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope (front)In the middle of the envelope runs the address Grandma thought was correct: Private Thos. W. Alderson/Evacuation Hospital No 24/American Expeditionary Forces/A.P.O. 798. The American Expeditionary Forces presumably sent the letter to France, as did the A.P.O. number, 798, which belonged to the area of the Mesves Hospital Center, where Grandpa had been convalescing. But the Evacuation Hospital No. 24 was incorrect, and that mistake belongs to Grandpa. He thought he wasn’t getting his mail as regularly as his buddies and decided to have Grandma send letters directly to him; but No. 24 was not the number of a hospital, but rather the number of a unit of a larger base hospital (whose number he didn’t have).

Over his name, notice the postmark (in purple) with the date of April 17. I’m unable to read the complete postmark to know if this was stamped in France or after the letter’s return to the U.S. I’m guessing in France, as letters took weeks to make the trip across the ocean and to the military camps.

In any case, on the postmark (or beneath it?) is a pointing finger and “RETURN TO WRITER” stamp. That return trip included a stop at Camp Funston, stamped in all capital letters in purple. And then, on the left edge of the envelope, a handwritten note states, “No Record, 6/12/19.”

14 Feb 19, Gma, envelope, back

The back of the envelope carries still more information. May 15, 1919, stamped in that same purple as CAMP FUNSTON on the front, makes me believe it was received there on that may date. And the postmark of June 10, may indicate the day the letter finally started back to Missouri, to Grandma.

So, where was Grandpa? By February 1, two weeks before Grandma wrote her letter, he had already begun his long trip home. Notice the location he gives, St. Agnan, France. This was the first time he’d identified his location during his service in France. The letter begins on the right half of the page.

feb-1-1919.jpg

Thos W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

Feb 1, 1919

St. Agnan, France

My Dear Inis, again I will drop only a line. You will see I have made a move, hope I have started home. I am in a large camp living in tents, having some winter. Had the first snow about a week ago. I have a pair of over shoes and am doing very well. Have nothing to do only sleep and eat. Go out twice a day for exercise. I am feeling good, although I miss the warm food and good bed at the Hospital. They wanted to attach me to the “Hosp” unit and let me stay but I preferred moving—as I think we are homeward bound of course we know not when but hope soon. I got my Xmas box the morn before I left the Hosp. Every thing was fine. I am sure holding on to those socks and the little knife. I expect it will be hard for you to read this as I holding the paper on my mess kit.

So I close with lots of love and kisses

Tom.

In this letter, Grandpa included cartoons he’d clipped from the newspaper, The Stars and Stripes. Military humor.

1-feb-19-cartoons-1.jpg

1-feb-19-cartoons-2-e1550204700139.jpg

The Stars and Stripes, 24 January 1919, p. 7

Here’s Grandma’s Valentine’s Day letter (although without a mention of the day). I haven’t transcribed it, since her handwriting is legible. Her letter is what my family refers to as “newsy,” and it is that. Notice her references to housekeeping and motherhood, which she seems to be looking forward to. The baby she writes about, the one that earned her the title of “Aunt Inis,” was born to her older brother Charley. Join me in wondering about the expression, “busy as a cranberry merchant”! But mostly, enjoy getting to know my grandmother.

14-Feb 19, Gma, 114 Feb 19, Gma, 214 Feb 19, Gma, 314 Feb 19, Gma, 414 Feb 19, Gma, 514 Feb 19, Gma, 6

Happy Valentine’s Day, Grandma and Grandpa! This is my love letter to you.

 

(*) The second letter returned to Grandma is dated February 16, 1919. More on that in an upcoming post.

The Gloomy Aftermath of War

The Armistice may have ended the fighting, but the war didn’t end for American soldiers like my grandfather–some 4 million in total. After their quick military training in the US and deployment overseas, they waited now to go home. (There were only a limited number of ships to transport them.) And they waited for assignments, for something to do. It was a time of uncertainty, a time of suffering from war wounds, and a time, for some, of despair.

Grandpa remained for months at the hospital complex near Mesves, in the Loire Valley.  It was miserable that winter, raining all the time, he wrote. In photographs I’ve seen of the complex, where tens of thousands of soldiers received medical attention after the war, row after row of nearly identical barracks created a monotonous scene of uniform plainness (depressing to my eye). (1)

He tried to keep an upbeat tone in his letters, even as he admitted ongoing problems with his arm.

12-21-18, 1 plum good

December 21, 1918 letter to Grandma.

After noting he hadn’t received mail in two months, he wrote,

My arm is plum healed up and don’t bother me at all only a little weak and I can’t straighten it plum out but I am sure if I were with you it would not bother me at all. Get me.

Did he think he would fully recover? In December, it seems he did.

“Our Division is up in the Rhine Valley as they are in the army of Occupation,” he wrote on December 14, a month into his recovery. “I would love to be with them, but you know I would rather come home you can bet.”

Neither of these were options, at least not at the time. Any hopes he held for a return to his company were dashed in early January. That’s when the doctors reviewed his condition and classified him as “C” class, which recommended “sedentary work” or work that didn’t include more than a five-mile march. (2)

Did he know, or want to suspect, that his injury would never fully heal, that it would limit his abilities the rest of his life?

The one time I sense a note of despair in his letters, or maybe a bit of defiance, was here, in a letter written January 6, a few days after receiving his classification.

1-6-19, 4 nurses

January 6, 1919 letter to Grandma.

After writing about piano players in the Red Cross “hut,” he continued,

The Nurses are trying to get me to cook in their mess, but I tell them I don’t want to tie myself to any job. As I was a Doughboy, you know I went over the top every time the co did and cooked up to that time of our first drive.

Wounded, he still identified as a soldier, still a member of Company C.

News from his buddies in Germany was scant. If he’d had better contact, Grandpa might have learned about the kind of despair some American troops faced there. I found this description in the History of the 89th Division, written by George English, himself a member of the division that served in Germany as part of the occupation. He recalls the days after the Armistice, when American forces began their march through the desolate “No Man’s Land” in France, on November 24, before entering Germany twelve days later, on December 5.

Should we mention our feelings on seeing green fields well kept–roofs and chimneys whole on the houses–fat cattle and well fed people in unharmed Germany–all after devastated France?

There was anger, he wrote, and also a note of melancholy.

The stately, spire-like poplars which line the French roads and give a characteristic tone to the landscape, were now supplanted by smaller, wide branching trees, whose gnarled and twisted limbs gave, in the winter season, a melancholy impression of suffering. (3)

My grandfather didn’t express his emotions, certainly not the way people do today. He witnessed suffering, and endured it, without complaint. That’s my memory of Grandpa. But what did he carry with him after seeing what he describes here, about halfway down? “When I look at so many one-arm, one leg’ed and one eye’d men I think I am sure lucky to only get a few scars on the arm.”

1-24-19, 2

January 24, 1919 letter to Grandma.

Suffering visited King City, Missouri, too, Grandpa learned in letters he received from home. “I was sure sorry to hear of so much sickness and so many deaths,” he wrote Grandma on January 3, 1919. This was a reference to the Spanish Influenza, the virulent type of flu that had become a worldwide pandemic, thanks in part to the movement of infected troops fighting in the war. The King City Chronicle ran notices of school and church closures, as well as obituaries of the victims. The paper also published advice columns from doctors, like this one recommending “pleasant purgative pellets” as a means of prevention.

King City, ad for purgative pellets

King City Chronicle, 29 November 1918, p 3.

In that same letter, dated January 3, Grandpa continued, “I am hoping it will soon be stopped but as Mother said in her letter I guess everyone must have some trouble and it looks like it.”

His mother was right, of course. But I wonder if she or any one of that generation really comprehended the scale of suffering–from the war and the Spanish Influenza–and the steely presence each kept in the lives of its victims.

Some wounds never fully heal.

 

NOTES

(1) For photos and information (in French) on the hospital center: http://cnrs-garchy.overblog.com/le-camp-hopital-americain-de-mesves-bulcy

(2) From the research center at the National World War 1 Museum in Kansas City, I learned that this classification system likely was adopted from the British. Here’s the chart they sent me.

   A Able to march, see to shoot, hear well and stand active service conditions.
Subcategories:
Al Fit for dispatching overseas, as regards physical and mental health, and training
A2 As Al, except for training
A3 Returned Expeditionary Force men, ready except for physical condition
A4 Men under 19 who would be Al or A2 when aged 19
B Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service on lines of communication in France, or in garrisons in the tropics.
Subcategories:
Bl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
B2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
B3 Only suitable for sedentary work
C Free from serious organic diseases, able to stand service in garrisons at home.
Subcategories:
Cl Able to march 5 miles, see to shoot with glasses, and hear well
C2 Able to walk 5 miles, see and hear sufficiently for ordinary purposes
C3 Only suitable for sedentary work
D Unfit but could be fit within 6 months.
Subcategories:
Dl Regular RA,RE, infantry in Command Depots
D2 Regular RA,RE, infantry in Regimental Depots
D3 Men in any depot or unit awaiting treatment

(3) English, George. History of the 89th Division. The War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, p. 263.

Adding Insult to Injury

The year ended on a sour note for Grandpa. Out on a walk one afternoon with his buddy, Tom Wright, both recuperating from battle injuries at the Mesves Hospital Center in the Loire Valley, they ran into a man named Stanley Brown.

Grandpa and Tom Wright

Undated photo, probably near Camp Funston, 1917-18. Grandpa is standing next to Wright.

Tom Wright, a fellow from Co C that is here with me and I went over to see Wayne yesterday afternoon and on our road back stopped at the Canteen to get some candy. The line was real long so we decided to come back without it. And just as we were starting, there was a nice looking fellow saw the 356 on my cap and says, “Say” what co are you out of? So I told him. After talking a few minutes with him he says do you know Tom Alderson in that co? I laughed and then said this is him you are talking to. He then stuck out his hand and says, this is Stanley Brown.

Like Grandpa, Stanley Brown had been recruited for service in Missouri (Madison, county of Monroe), trained at Camp Funston, and deployed as part of the 356th Infantry, 89th Division (Company E). Also like Grandpa, Stanley Brown had an interest in my grandmother. In a letter Grandpa wrote on December 29, he recounted how he “was showing him a picture of yours . . .

12-29-184.jpg

December 29, 1918 letter to Grandma.

I was showing him a picture of yours that I have in the back of my watch, and he pulled out his pocket book and showed me the same picture. So Wright has been teasing me all day about it.

My grandfather was a proud man. I’m pretty sure he didn’t like the teasing, and pretty sure he didn’t like the surprise.

A couple of weeks later, on January 6, 1919, Grandpa reported that Stanley Brown had undergone another operation, “A piece of dead bone taken out of his leg, is what a boy was telling me.” Then he admitted, “I have been laying off going up to see him.” That’s the last time Grandpa wrote about Stanley Brown.

This story might end on the wards of the Mesves Hospital Center, Grandpa’s feelings hurt. But that seems unfair to my grandmother.

Grandma Wartime

Undated photo of my grandmother as a young woman.

Pulling out the lens to see the many women on the home front–charged with letter-writing and knitting and purchasing Liberty Bonds and keeping up the spirits of their soldier boys, as they kept up their own lives and livelihoods–it’s not hard to imagine the emotional burden they carried during the long months of separation from the men sent off to a distant war.

Consider the slow pace of the mail, which took weeks (months) to find its way to the battlefield and back home. After Grandpa was wounded, his mail was sent first to his company before being routed back to the hospital, a journey that didn’t always result in delivery. (More on that in a later post.) So, it was difficult to stay in touch, and perhaps difficult to maintain a friendship.

And then there’s the Midwestern farming culture of Grandma’s family, one that expected young women to marry and have children and set up a farmstead of their own. Were young women like Grandma expected to put their lives on hold, to wait for men to return, some injured, others dead?

In Grandma’s case–and here I struggle to find a word that gathers up what I picture as her family’s concerns and expectations, perhaps even pressure, to maintain a sensible course in her life at this time. Maybe they counseled her to keep open her options. Or maybe Grandma had questions about Grandpa, whom she met just before he set off for training. In any case, it was her family (and his) who set up introductions. That’s how she came to know Grandpa, through his Aunt Ettie (Hale). And Stanley Brown came into her life when her Aunt Susie (Dykes) Frank, who lived in Madison, introduced them there.

Why did Grandma write to these two men, and why did she give them each the same photo to carry with them into battle? I don’t know. Nor do I know the intentions of Stanley Brown, only that he was more than a wartime pen pal. He would stay in the picture of my grandparents’ sometimes bumpy romance in the months ahead.

 

Christmas with Grandpa

Christmas postcard

Postcard sent to Grandma, December 1918.

Christmas brings back lots of memories for me. Today, I’ll remember three memorable Christmases that feature my grandfather–1918, 1943, and 1960.

 

Christmas 1918, France

Grandpa spent Christmas at a hospital south of Paris, recovering from the injury he sustained in battle, just days before the Armistice. Although he couldn’t identify the location, other than “some place in France,” most likely he recuperated at the Mesves Hospital Center, in the Loire Valley. The clue to his location can be found on the other side of this Christmas card. Christmas card, addressThe number 798, stamped in the upper right corner, is the APO (Army Post Office) for village of Mesves-sur-Loire, a detail explained to me by a researcher at the National World War 1 Museum and Memorial (Kansas City). (1) Hospital buildings stretched between the two small villages of Mesves and Bulcy. In November 1918, more than 20,000 American soldiers were hospitalized in this area. Grandpa scribbled a short note on the card:

Dec 26

Just a word to let you know I had a Merry Xmas and am feeling fine am still in the Hospital will write soon.

Lovingly,

Tom

On December 23, Grandpa sent a letter to his parents. I found it printed in the King City Chronicle, February 7, 1919. Mail from France usually took 4 – 6 weeks to arrive.

Some Place in France.

Dec. 23, 1918.

Dear Folks:

I am still in the hospital but am just like a well man, feeling fine, have plenty to eat and sleep good. I am working in the diet kitchen about six hours a day, and that is just enough to make it interesting for me.

I think I will go over to the town tomorrow, as we boys have all pitched in and are going to buy the two nurses in our ward a present, as they are awfully nice and are working hard to make Xmas pleasant for us. We have our ward all decorated and are going to have a Xmas tree. The Red Cross is working hard getting ready for Xmas. I saw what they were fixing. This afternoon they are taking a pair of new socks and filling them with nuts, candy and cigarettes for each soldier.

I don’t think I will be able to get my package from you as my mail will go to the Company and they are so far off.

In fact, Grandpa didn’t receive any mail for months. All letters and packages went to his “official” address, to the location of the remaining members of his Company C, 356th Infantry, 89th Division. Most, he would learn, were in Germany, along the Rhine, as part of the Army of Occupation.

But even without incoming mail, Grandpa kept writing and managed to send one small gift to Grandma–a silk-embroidered postcard. Handkerchief with full borderThese cards were especially popular during the war. (2) Some were hand-embroidered on a mesh support (here, the area of the flowers), others by machine. Some had only embroidery and others, like this one, featured a pocket to tuck in a card and/or a handkerchief (this one is too small to be anything other than a suggestion of a usable handkerchief). After being embroidered, the piece went to a print shop in Paris to be attached to a cardboard frame that served as a postcard, with a mailing address on the back. Grandpa chose to put this one in an envelope, postmarked December 12, 1918.

silk border card insert

On the back of the small card, he wrote, “Dec 10. Dear Inis. How are you? I am getting along fine but still in the Hospital. As usual it is raining today. Hoping this reaches you O.K. Lovingly, Tom”

Grandpa reported on the festivities of Christmas Eve and Christmas Day in a December 29, 1918, letter to Grandma, which included “we had a splendid Xmas” . . .

12-29-18,1 cropped

12-29-18, 2 cropped

Portion of letter he wrote on December 29, 1918.

We had a splendid Christmas had a tree and we decorated the ward so things had a real Xmas spirit. About nine o’clock a bunch of nurses mixed with a few male Voices went through all the wards singing Xmas carols which was very nice. Then after that the Red Cross workers went through and put out the stockings, which were filled with nuts, candy and cigarettes, and after we had our Santa Claus and giving the presents to the nurses and our ward surgeon which we boys bought, we sang a few songs and went to bed.

Then the next day we had a turkey dinner, then in the afternoon we were given candy, nuts, apples, oranges and white grapes. Then that night we had a Minstrel show in the Recreation Hall put on by a bunch of engineers (3) and they were good.

I carried a fellow that was crippled over on my back to see the show.

Christmas 1943: Nortonville, Kansas and King City, Missouri

Grandpa and Grandma were living in Nortonville, Kansas in 1943. They may have had Christmas there with my father, home from college (University of Kansas). There’s a better chance they celebrated the holiday with their families in Missouri. In any case, Grandma and Daddy had some fun at Grandpa’s expense. I know about this joke because  the Associated Press circulated the story on their wire. And I know about that because Grandma’s sister, my great Aunt Mattie, contacted the AP with what she considered a funny Christmas prank.

Same Shirt

My great Aunt Mattie glued clippings of her published newspaper stories in a scrapbook. She carefully annotated each one.

What Aunt Mattie hadn’t imagined (couldn’t have imagined) was the appearance of the article in a newspaper in Springfield, Missouri. That’s where a World War 1 buddy of Grandpa’s, a man named Clifford Melton (Ozark, Missouri), saw it.

Same Shirt, follow-up

From Aunt Mattie’s scrapbook. She taught English and journalism at Northwest Missouri College (now Northwest Missouri State University).

Christmas 1960: Lawrence, Kansas

Christmas memories from my childhood include my grandparents, who would load up their car (or pickup truck) in Effingham, Kansas, and drive to our home in Lawrence.

Pink Lady, 1960

Christmas in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960. My first bike, from Grandma and Grandpa.

Christmas Eve that year, if my memory is true, I checked out the presents under the tree and didn’t see much for me. As we opened gifts on Christmas day, I went to bed a bit concerned. But that mood changed in the morning when I saw what Grandpa and Grandma had brought–a bicycle named the Pink Lady. The frame was pink. Shiny fenders framed whitewall tires. A little medallion at the front featured the “pink lady.” I was eight that Christmas, maybe a bit young for a big bike. Mother recalls that Grandpa thought I was ready for a bike, as my older brother and sister already had theirs. He and Daddy assembled it, but not properly. It landed in the bike shop not long after Christmas! But the Pink Lady saw many good years of service. I still have her.

Pink Lady, detail

Older, but still fine, the Pink Lady mostly stays in the garage. Occasionally we go out for a spin.

Merry Christmas! I hope the holiday is filled with your own fond memories of family!

 

NOTES:

(1) The National World War 1 Museum and Memorial has been so helpful to me. https://www.theworldwar.org

(2) I like the overview of the silk embroidered postcards at this site from the Netherlands. Click on each picture and learn more: https://trc-leiden.nl/trc-digital-exhibition/index.php/silk-embroidered-postcards

(3) By engineers, I presume he means men serving at the Mesves complex as construction and repair specialists, men who had done important work at the front in creating and maintaining roads, rail lines, water supplies and mechanical equipment.

 

Another Thanksgiving far from Home

Grandpa spent Thanksgiving, 1917, at Camp Funston, Kansas. A year later, he shared the holiday with wounded American soldiers in a hospital south of Paris. From letters he sent in January, the hospital seems to have been Evacuation Hospital #24, with a military mail code of APO 798. 11-28-18 envelope front

This letter, postmarked December 1, was the first he sent to Grandma after his injury. If she didn’t know he’d been wounded, the neat penmanship on the envelope was a clue. This wasn’t Grandpa’s handwriting. And, once she opened the envelope and saw the American Red Cross letterhead, I imagine she knew: he was sending news from a military hospital staffed by the Red Cross.

11-28-18, 111-28-18, 2

It was true, as Grandpa wrote (or dictated), that mail would be hard to send and receive. I wonder why. The delivery of mail at the front didn’t fail. The army knew the value of mail as a means to keep up morale. But now, in peace time, the service faltered. It would be two months before Grandpa received mail from Grandma, or anyone from home.

Speaking of home, my childhood home in Kansas, Thanksgiving is the holiday I most associate with my family. I don’t have a photo of a Thanksgiving table, but I want to include a picture of Grandma. She made such a wonderful meal. I especially remember the super moist oyster dressing she served, an odd treat for a Kansas holiday. It was perfect with a side of her dried corn, mashed potatoes and turkey, covered in gravy and followed with pie.

Gma, Manitour, shuffle board

Grandma as my shuffle board partner, one summer in Manitou Springs, Colorado. My brother stands at the other end of the court.

11-28-18 envelope, back

The back of the envelope. American Red Cross. American Expeditionary Forces.

 

After the Armistice

November 11, 1918

Grandpa learned about the Armistice from the hospital. He’d been there (or in a series of places) for eight days. On November 15, he had a friend write a letter to his parents; his right arm, injured in an attack, didn’t allow him to hold a pen. As was common among local families with their “boys” at war, his parents shared the letter with the King City Chronicle, who published it on December 13.

Letter 11-15

King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p. 1.

The fighting may have stopped that day in November, but it didn’t end my grandfather’s own battles. He stayed in France until March, 1919, recovering and waiting to rejoin his Company C, 356thInfantry, 89thDivision. He didn’t want to leave France without them. After returning to King City, he spent months fighting his way back into the life he’d left for war. The transition was difficult. Upcoming blog posts will look at his life after the Great War ended.

November 11, 2018

I decided to recognize November 11 as a remembrance of the Armistice. That’s how Grandpa’s generation saw the day, as a celebration of peace, as the end of a war meant “to end all wars.”  I flew a flag from the front porch.

Armistice Day 2018

And I baked donuts to remember Grandpa’s job (one of his jobs) as an Army cook.

Armistice Day Donuts, turned, cropped

Cinnamon, lemon, and blood orange (glazed) donuts

I shared them with my orchestra, the group that added two World War 1-era songs to our repertoire, Liberty Bell (It’s Time to Ring Again) (1) and Don’t Forget the Salvation Army (My Doughnut Girl). (2)

Music holds a central place in my family—especially in the generations of musicians on Grandma’s side. They sang at church and sang at home, with someone playing the piano or pump organ or violin or mandolin. Into this tradition, my father picked up the cornet. And his children, the trumpet, piano, organ, and violin. So, offering a musical tribute to Grandpa and his generation of soldiers seemed perfect to me. I felt so close to him and all my family as I remembered the Armistice with music (and donuts).

 

 

NOTES

I’ve shared these links before. Enjoy the music again!

(1) Liberty Bell

https://archive.org/details/78_liberty-bell-its-time-to-ring-again_peerless-quartet-joe-goodwin-halsey-k.-mohr_gbia0013538a

(2) My Doughnut Girl

November 3: Wounded in Action

November 3, 1918. Sunday morning. 5:30 am. Grandpa and the members of Company “C”, 356thInfantry, 89thDivision, prepared to advance on German troops. From historical accounts of the division, I place him in an area roughly 60 miles east and slightly north of Reims, between the northern edges of the forested area called the Barricourt Heights and the small villages known as Le Champy Bas and Le Champy Haut. (1)

The Germans had long held this part of France and knew how to take advantage of the dense woods (for traps and hiding spots for snipers) and the hills (to follow the enemy) and the open fields (to pick off advancing troops).

That morning, on November 3, the American infantry troops set out with extra supplies for what the army expected to be heavy fighting: “two bandoleers of small arms ammunition, one automatic rifle clip or the equivalent number of cartridges, two hand grenades, two rifle grenades and one white panel.” (2) They followed behind the artillery, whose deadly shells added a smoky haze to the foggy, wintry morning. Advance, always march forward, they knew. Use a compass, as needed. Stay with your group. If a comrade falls, leave him. Don’t give the enemy an inch.

Major General Charles P. Summerall, in a daily briefing, explained.

The best way to safeguard the wounded is to push ahead and defeat the enemy. Pitiful examples have occurred in the present offensive wherein units have allowed their strength to be weakened by details for carrying wounded and in the face of a counter attack have been driven back, leaving their wounded to die. To halt plays the enemy’s game, since he is fighting a defensive action with machine guns and artillery. To halt means losses. (3)

On that November day—one hundred years ago today, one of those machine guns fired at my grandfather. He fell to the ground. The only information I have on the nature of that battle and his injury appears in a letter he wrote six weeks later.

12-14-18, 2, cropped

Letter written December 12, 1918. The second page includes the section shown above.

My arm don’t bother me a great deal only is weak. But there is a good cause as I had a gash about five inches long cut to the bone just above my wrist which cut a leader [tendon], and a bullet through the muscle of my arm which cut an artery, which almost bled me to death before got off the field. We were in the front wave going over the top at this time and the Germans had a large number of machine guns just about three hundred yards ahead of us. And they were sure using them. Ha. Ha.

Historical accounts describe the advance by the 356th Infantry as coming under “severe fire from the woods in front and from the village of Le Champy Haut.” (4) Grandpa told Grandma, in a letter from November 28, that “our whole bunch was hit hard.”

I’ll never know who saved my grandfather, or how long he lay on that field, nearly bleeding to death by his own account. Was he carried off? Did an ambulance transport him, over muddy, rutted roads, to safety and care?

In an earlier post, I noted the levels of care established during World War 1. It was a  system that saved the lives of men like my grandfather. Medical personnel were stationed in trenches, to evaluate injuries. Advanced dressing stations, 400 yards away from the fighting, to stabilize bleeding. Field hospitals, 1 ½ miles away, for emergency operations. Evacuation hospitals, 8 – 13 miles away, for more serious operations. Base hospitals, 23-28 miles away, for convalescence and physical therapy. (5)

Grandpa nearly came through the war without injury. His luck ran out that November day, so close to the official armistice. People tell me that he was lucky because he received medical attention and survived. But it’s also true that his luck was scarred by a wound that would never fully heal.

Notes

(1) English, George H. History of the 89th Division, U.S.A. War Society of the 89th Division, 1920, pp. 196-200. To explore the November battles, visit the online map collection of the Library of Congress, especially the map of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, day by day, noted by Major General Charles P. Summerall. You should be able to enlarge sections, and when you do, follow the 89th: https://www.loc.gov/resource/g5831s.ct004281/?r=0.115,0.528,0.473,0.199,0

(2) English, p. 171.

(3) English, p. 168.

(4) English, p. 199.

(5) National WW1 Museum and Memorial, exhibition notes.

The Last Letter from the Front

Grandma knew the look of “soldiers mail.” Grandpa was required to write the term in the upper corner of every envelope mailed from France to guarantee free postage.

last envelope

She recognized all the information that covered the front: her name and address, and his, the censor’s stamp, and the postmark: here, November 12, U.S. Army Post Office M.P.E.S. 1918. APO 761. (1)

The postmark confirmed that the letter began its journey on the day after the Armistice. She certainly received it weeks after the end of fighting, and during a time, I presume, Americans were celebrating the end of the war.

She may have looked twice at sender’s box, AM.EX.F. (American Expeditionary Forces), Knights of Columbus (a Catholic charity), only because most of his letters were sent on stationery provided by the Y.M.C.A. Grandpa surely took whatever free paper was offered.

She opened the envelope across the bottom edge, using a long, pointed letter opener that neatly sliced through a single edge without damaging the envelope or the letter enclosed. (I remember watching her open letters with such a tool.) When she pulled out the letter, its two pages neatly folded, she may have first seen Grandpa’s signature.

last envelope, back with letter

If I had seen his signature, I would have smiled. He was still alive. He was still writing letters. But I don’t know what Grandma thought. Maybe she was relieved to hear from him, or annoyed that he was writing so infrequently now (as compared to the daily writing they’d established over the months of his service). Grandpa hints at her frustration in this letter.

I wonder if she calculated the transit time, figuring the weeks it had taken this letter, after Grandpa wrote it, to find its way to the censor, to the military post office, and then onto a ship crossing the Atlantic Ocean, before traveling by train from New York to Missouri. Maybe she did. She was clever and always good with numbers.

103118-1.jpg

“October 31, 1918. Some place in France. My Dear Inis,” the letter began. So, he had written this well before the November 12 postmark, she might have thought, before the Armistice, and before he was safe from enemy fire.

I doubt, as she held the letter and slowly made her way through the contents, that she could have known that–in real time, at the very moment she was reading his letter–Grandpa was lying in a hospital bed in France, badly injured on November 3, only a few days after he wrote her. The news of his injury only made its way to his next of kin—his parents—in December.

“Mr. And Mrs. Alderson received word the first of the week,” the King City Chronicle noted on December 13, 1918, “that their son, Tom, was seriously wounded, Nov. 3rd. All hope they will yet get different word and all extend sympathy to Mr. And Mrs. Alderson.” (2)

Grandma probably read this letter–by my count the 175th one he sent during his service and the last one from the front–around Thanksgiving, before anyone knew he’d been hurt. Her family, gathered at their holiday table, no doubt prayed for his safe return. He would return, but not for months, and not in the same condition he’d known before he was called to serve his country, a solemn duty that changed his life, and hers.

Notes

(1) M.P.E.S. stood for Military Postal Express Service. It was set up in 1918, to expedite military mail sent from overseas. APO, Army Post Office, the number referring to a collection location (which I couldn’t identify), typically the spot near the battle area where the mail could be put safely on a train.

(2) King City Chronicle, 13 December 1918, p4.

October 31, 1918

Some place in France

My Dear Inis,

The orders are for us today to write to no one except our people, but as I written home a few days ago I am going to write you.

I know you think I have neglected you some and I have, but you don’t know what we have been doing since I written you last. We had had some hard warfare.

You know we all write home and send the bright side although you know we are not having a snap. I am daily looking for the time that I can be with you and tell you all.

I have been with Harry Carder several times in the last week. He is only stationed about a mile from where we are now. He is just the same as ever and is a good officer. He brought me back to my co [company] in his car a couple of times. He also took supper with us one night.

This is a beautiful day and we are sure enjoying it as we are just sleeping out on the ground with our blankets over us. We have been on the front going on four months and I think our Division deserves a rest as they have done some hard work.

I got a letter from you last night also one from Mother and a couple of Chronicles. They came in fine as I was sick all day, but am feeling a little better today.

I don’t know whether you will be able to read this or not. I am sitting on the ground with the paper on my Gas mask.

Several of our boys are back from the Hospital. Carl Ketchum, Rube Dunlap and several more you would not know.

I supose you have got the card designating you are allowed to send a Xmas present to a Soldier in France.

Xmas coupon

(He sent the coupon on October 26. Given the long time mail took, weeks, I wonder if it arrived in time to meet the November 20 deadline. Clearly, the coupon wasn’t used.)

Don’t think I am [word unclear] you for it as every boy sent one and I sent it to you instead of the folks and I thought you might send together and I don’t want you to send a great deal as we can’t carry it only something we can eat. Ha Ha.

Ferris Keys has gone to the officers training camp. I haven’t heard from him yet. Also four have gone from our co. I hear from Marshall [his brother] real often. He is well pleased with Denver.

You mentioned in one of your letters that you felt like you were not doing enough to help win the war. I think you are and if you are not I am doing enough for us both, so just rest easy.

Well we were told not to write big letters so I better quit. So I do so by sending plenty of love x kisses

Tom.

Thos. W. Alderson

Co C 356 Inf

American E. F.

Via N.Y.

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