Old Soldiers...Yesteryear

I found most of this “stuff” in a letter written by my paternal grandfather to my mother just after Christmas in 1931. Although World War I had then been over for thirteen years it was obvious that the memory of it was still very vivid in the minds of those who lived during those years. And so, it would always be.

                Even so my father must not have talked much about his war – “The war to end all wars” they called it. I would later find in my own experience that such matters only get easier to talk about the further you distance yourself from them. And even then, some of the really bad things are purposely forgotten or never fully aired. Perhaps it’s best that way.

                Pop enlisted in the Maine National Guard on the 5th day of July in 1917. Shortly afterward his company was called to Fort Williams and the federal government assumed control over the unit. On the 25th of August he left Fort Williams for Camp Curtis in Boxford, Massachusetts where he joined the 103rd Field Artillery, and started training for overseas deployment.

                At the end of September, the company was sent to Newport News, Virginia to collect horses and guns. Shortly thereafter they boarded the transport ship “Kansas” and set sail for the French seaport city of Brest, France. Whilst asea the transport ship encountered a bad storm. They were given up for lost. But 30 days later they somehow reached port having only lost time and a few horses on the cruise.

                From Brest Pop’s unit - that was by then known as the 103rd U.S. Field Artillery - left for Neufchateau where the regiment was preparing for combat. From there they went to Soissons to enter “the line” (i.e., to actively participate in the war). The unit was part of the first full American Army Division to land in France in 1917. It is known as the famed 26th “Yankee Division”.

                Altogether they spent 205 days on the front line: participating in the Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, St. Mihiel, Meuse-Argonne, and Defensive Sector battle campaigns. They advanced 23 miles and lost 2,281 soldiers during the expedition. 11,383 were wounded.

                Just six days before the Armistice (November 11, 1918) Pop fell victim to a mustard gas attack at Verdun and was hospitalized. Afterwards he was supposed to go to a “detention camp” but, instead, set off to find and rejoin his regiment. And on the Eve of Christmas 1918 he found them. In the process, however, his medical records were lost. As a consequence, he wasn’t awarded a purple heart until he was well into his 80s.

                Pop was discharged from the service in April of 1919. He was 21 years old. A short time later he left his home state of Maine on a young man’s quest to find his fortune in the west. On his way there he stopped to see his uncle, the Reverend Howard C. Lynch at the First Congregational Church in a little Ohio village called Vermilion. He never left.

                For the most part he put the war behind him. But he never ever forgot those he left behind nor those whose war wounds were much deeper than his own. As the years turned, he became a charter member and first Commander of Vermilion’s American Legion Post. And so long as he could he participated in Memorial and Armistice Day ceremonies. He was also the last person to fire one of the big naval cannons in Exchange Park on the 4th of July in 1921.  (VPJ 07/12/21). In his later years he fired the little cannon (inset picture) kept by the Legion at football games, etc.

Fresh from the war Pop must not have talked a great deal about his war - “The war to end all wars” – at least to Mom, which explains the letter from her father-in-law. But there was a New Year ahead (1932) and the world was at peace. There would perhaps be time to think and speak of that yesteryear another day.

                Personal Papers and photograph from the Roscoe-Tarrant Family Collection; Special Thanks to my family; Published in the Vermilion Photojournal 01/07/10.

                Vermilion resident Rich Tarrant is Curator of the Vermilion History Museum and a son and a grandson of the late proprietors of The Vermilion News (1897-1964). Readers may email him at: rnt@twc.com