Friday, June 10, 2011

LETTERS TO MY SWEETHEART, 1918 - Life of a Soldier in World War I

Intro: Our wonderful Spring intern Jade became fascinated with a collection of letters we had from a soldier in 1918 writing to his sweetheart. Below are Jade's thoughts in writing, intertwined with excerpts from those letters (in blue) and pictures we culled from our research. Truly a fascinating slice into the life of those times.
Enjoy it!
Letters To Miss Margaret “Peg” Smith:

During my internship at Helen Uffner Vintage Clothing LLC, I stumbled upon a Ziploc bag crammed  with  letters from 1918. I started reading them and decided that as my “special intern project”, I wanted to transcribe these letters onto the computer to learn about the lifestyle of an average soldier in the 1918 army. Little did I know what kind of journey I would take through these letters!!!

Barracks at Fort Rodman
Sergeant Donald R. Sherwood was a sergeant stationed at Fort Rodman, Massachusetts and wrote endlessly to a Miss Margaret “Peg” Smith.

By reading these letters, Donald came alive for me and I really got a grasp of the kind of young man Donald was - a funny fellow who joked around quite a lot!

In the first letter dated February 19th 1918, he wrote about his experiences of his first weeks in the army. He met some older soldiers and
 “ They told me that the army brings out either the bad or good in a fellow. At that rate I’ll probably come out a drunk and a cut-throat.  …..They think that a fellow, to be a soldier has to smoke, drink, chew, swear, and raise the dickens in general. I am the only one in the squad room who does not smoke, drink or chew, and I suppose in about a week I’ll be floating around with a cigarette in my mouth and a bottle of whiskey on my hip.”

Donald learned that “A fellow who ‘puts in’ for a job of any kind to avoid standing reveille and retreat, and to get out of doing kitchen police and other work is called a “dog robber”.

New American Recruits in 1918
When Donald was stationed at Fort Rodman, Massachusetts, he wrote that  “ the wind was blowing like Sam Hill”.  Wikipedia mentions that Sam Hill (as in “what the Sam Hill is that?????) was an American slang expression started in about 1830 as a euphemism for “the devil” or “hell”.  A possible origin for the phrase is the surveyor Samuel W. Hill (1819-1889) who allegedly used such foul language so frequently that his name became a euphemism for swear words!

I never found Peg’s response letters but her personality resonated through Donald’s correspondence with her. What I learned about Peg was that she was a nurse at the Hackensack Hospital in New Jersey, at the top of her class in biomedical studies, and she and Donald were either in a relationship or just flirting (1918’s version of flirt texting).
A postcard of Hackensack Hospital from the 1940's
It seemed that Donald has a crush on Peg, and I sensed that they were in some sort of relationship is because of the way he wrote to Peg.

You must look real trim and military-like in your new capes. I would certainly like to see you in one, Peg, you know I always told you that you were cute, what must you be in a military cape, cadet blue lined with bright red---WOW!!! But I suppose you will think that I am kidding you again. It’s tough when nobody will believe a fellow.”

When he planned to come home on leave he wrote:

“Also, Miss Margaret Serena Smith, if you refuse to bid me goodbye, I’ll jump off the transport or get in front of the first boche shell which comes my way. Then you will be sorry for your harsh treatment….be sure to answer promptly, because I’ll be looking for the little pink envelope” Such a romantic, wasn’t he?
WWI Nurse

By June he changed ranks:
“I have been made a corporal, Peg, and I am in charge on quarters to-day. Eight men from our company were made. I have to answer two phones, look up all kinds of things, answer foolish questions from recruits, and a thousand and one other things….. It isn’t a very snappy job and his free time was spent considerably more innocently than I am sure our soldiers now spend their time I spent the better part of my time eating cake, and playing tiddle-dee-winks with one of the pretty hostesses.” 

Nevertheless, our Donald DID have his vices: “since returning, I have smoked several packages of cigarettes, and of course I am doomed. I rather like them, too, and expect to smoke some more! When I was home in talking about smoking, my mother told me, that although she would rather not have me smoke, she would not consider it a crime if I do it, and really wouldn’t blame me. I do not expect to make a regular fiend out of myself, and an occasional smoke will do me no harm. There are times when time drop heavily on a fellow’s hand, and a fag helps a lot to occupy his mind.”

June 21 he wrote: “I do not know how soon we will leave, or where we shall go from here. We are to be on railroad mounts, but I do not know how big the guns will be. A fine bunch of fellows are in the battery, and the officers are a fine bunch, too. It is to contain 189 men, including about 45 non-coms. The barracks which we are to occupy are nearly completed, and we will probably move into them by the 1st of July.”

By July 2nd, he started feeling like he was really in the army: “The old battery is going full swing now, and I’m beginning to think that I’m really in the army. We drill all morning and take a hike every afternoon. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays we take a short hike (about 5 miles) and have calisthenics after returning to the fort. Tuesdays and Thursdays we take long hikes. We went on one today and walked about 12 miles.”
Camp Mills, Long Island, 1918

By August, Donald was itching to go overseas: “When we leave for overseas, we will have to carry all of our equipment in our packs, and it will surely make quite some bundle. One good thing though—the sergeants carry pistols instead of rifles” and by September an order has been received for us to be ready to leave at any time.”

Sept. 21 he was transferred to Camp Mills, Long Island We left Fort Rodman at 7:30 Thursday night and arrived here at about 9:30 after hiking from the Mineola station, and by jingoes we realized that we’re in the army now. We sleep in tents without floors, wash in the open with cold water, and have only open air showers with cold weather…we do not know how long we will stay here, but I don’t think it will be for long, and the next stop will be ‘over there’. “
Visiting Day at Camp Mills, Long Island

Around October of 1918, Donald left the United States with the American Expeditionary Forces, headed to France. He wrote to Peg frequently, always ending the letter with " I expect a prompt response!"

October 10th they arrived in England:

American troops boarding the SS President Lincoln to go to France
“We have arrived ‘over here’ at last, and maybe I’m not glad. That ocean trip was not my idea of a good time, and I think that if Sherman had had anything to do with transports he would have made his remark even stronger. I’m rocking yet. ’Old Glory’ was waving all over the city when we docked, and as we passed though towns the people ran out with American flags and waved them at us.

“The 73rd band played the national anthems of each country. During the ceremony, it was overcast, but as soon as they struck up ‘The Star-spangled banner’, ‘old sol’ shone fourth with a blaze. Donald noticed that “ the policemen are dressed like Brigadier generals, but they are mostly husky looking chaps.”
U.S. troops arriving in England, 1917 (photo by Mrs. Albert Broom)

Now as 
“SGT. DONALD R. SHERWOOD, BATTERY E, 73RD C.A.C (Coast Artillery Corps), AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCES”, *****(see history of the 73rd Regiment below)  he soon wrote again:

“Since this letter was started we have been doing considerable traveling, and we are now 'somewhere in France'.  Most of our battery were in regular passenger coaches, but many of the men rode in boxcars. We had no windows in our car, and it was some cold. We had corned beef, cold canned tomatoes, bread and jam for rations.”

The next letter arrived from “U.S. ARMY POST OFFICE MPES 719 1 11 18, A.E.F PASSED AS CENSORED SOLDIER MAIL” on October 26th:

American soldiers in French town, 1918
“ Last Sunday though, we worked all day, by reliefs, digging ditches, out battalion is on fatigue every 3 days for the entire day.  We have been issued our trench helmets and four pairs of heavy woolen socks. We have also been given a sweater, helmet and woolen sox by the Red Cross. The helmets are heavy clumsy affairs, but they are good for rainy days. There is some Spanish influenza here, but I don’t believe it is as bad as in the States.”

 He still yearned for Peg: “I never told my mother that I cared for you, Peg, but she knows it just as well as I do myself”

November 15th he wrote: “We have been issued gasmasks and have been drilling with them. They put as through a gas chamber the other day containing real gas but not deadly. After remaining these for some time to test on masks we took them off to feel the difference. There was some scrambling to get out of that place. The tears were just rolling down some of the fellows’ cheeks in streams.” 

American Expeditionary Forces, 1918
“The way things look now the war will soon be over and we may not see any action at all. ….I’ll be mighty glad to get back to good old U.S.A too. I haven’t seen much of France or England, but the ‘land the free and the home of the brave’ looks better than what I have seen.”

Of course, he was still smoking cigarettes:    “We have been getting our regular ration of Bull Durham. I never had any experience in ‘rolling my own’, but I am progressing rapidly and if I am in the army for about 10 more years perhaps I’ll be able to roll a cigarette that looks about half-decent without losing most of the tobacco and my temper. It is quite a science.”

 . The 73rd Regiment was organized in July, 1918 at Fort Banks, Mass.
 . September 1918 the Regiment moved to Camp Mills, NY in preparation for sailing to France.
 . That same month the Regiment sailed on the 24th of September from the Port of Embarkation, Hoboken, New Jersey aboard the British Transport HMS Scotian and arrived October 7, 1918 Liverpool, England.
  . On the 14th of December, 1918 the 73rd Artillery and the 74th Artillery had orders to move out for the trip back home. That day they sailed from Brest, France aboard the transport USS Mongolia.
  . On December 22, 1918 they reached New York and on the 23 went ashore and went to Camp Mills, New York. They were demobilized in January, 1919 at Camp Devens, Mass.

Example of an early AEF (American Expeditionary Forces) Identity Card
The next and final letter was dated April 10, 1919, when he seemed to have returned to New Jersey from the war and was looking for gainful employment.  He expressed his frustration at not being able to do so, not unlike many of our returned veterans:  “ If I do not hear from any position before the 1st of the month, I am going to see about a job with the United Fruit Co. like the one I turned down, and when I hit the west, quit and stay there if I can find anything at all to do. I’d rather get something here but there seem to be very few chances. I’m getting tired telling people that I am doing nothing—if I get about there nobody will know me.”

We don’t know what happened after that. It was the final letter.

I (Jade) did some successful internet sleuthing and it turned out that Donald was born in 1898, which meant at the time of these letters he was around 20. He died in 1976 - which is a shame, because I really wanted to speak to him about Peg. 

According to a 1930 census in Spring Valley New York, Donald R. Sherwood was married to Olive Sherwood, but there was no record of children. Donald also was in a 1956 court case, against an infamous highway expansion.

So, who was Peg? What did she look like and did she ever marry? Well, I’d love to know, and also know what broke up her and Donald….but that will have to remain a mystery.

Gee, fellow reader; if you have any other letters addressed to Donald R. Sherwood, please send them to me care of Uffnervintage!

Jade in her Prom finery!!!!
          Jade Highleyman