The War Stories Their Families Never Forgot

“The war thus comes to an end.” Those were the words that President Woodrow Wilson delivered to Congress after announcing the terms of the armistice, signed hours earlier — ending a global conflict that killed an estimated 8.5 million soldiers across both sides and injured 21 million more. On Nov. 11, 2018, that peace agreement will be 100 years old. To commemorate the anniversary, we asked readers to share stories and memories of their relatives who had a role in World War I. We received hundreds of submissions, many of which went beyond the traditional definition of a war story; among the tales of loss, death and trauma were also stories of love, mischief and unexpected happiness. Countless families were forged during and after the war: young men and women, who may not have ever met otherwise, brought together under circumstances tied to their service. Other readers wrote of relatives who joined the military to earn their citizenship after immigrating to the United States. Sometimes even without understanding a word of English, these men put on a uniform and fought for a country they wanted to call home.

Below is a selection of submissions from readers.

My dad, George Hewitt, and his brother, Phil, never got out of New York City after volunteering for the Navy. They spent boot camp together in Brooklyn, as was common. When the flu swept through the crowded barracks, it took my Uncle Phil along with hundreds of others. Uncle Phil lasted two and a half days. — Philip Hewitt, Stuart, Fla.

My great-aunt, Minnie Strobel, served in the Army Nurse Corps. A farm girl from Mound City, Mo., she left home at 34 to become a nurse. Her station in Orleans, France, received soldiers directly from the front lines. Imagine the joy and gratitude of the soldiers and nurses when the armistice was signed on Nov. 11! This is her scrapbook account of Thanksgiving, three weeks later: “All was in readiness on time for the turkey and dressing. All ambulatory patients were seated at the table after the bed patients had their trays. Table after table were served. It was late afternoon before the last were served. Remarks such as this came from the boys: ‘Gee isn’t this great!’ or ‘When was the last time I had my feet under the table?’ or ‘This is next to being at home.’ It was a great day. No one thought of being weary. One of the nurses’ happiest days ever.” — Holly Buchanan, Snohomish, Wash.

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My great-aunt’s cousin, Jesse Hollingsworth of Mount Airy, N.C. enlisted in the United States Navy after the R.M.S. Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915. Although he was 22 years old, he barely met the minimum height requirement. His feet were so small that the Navy did not have shoes small enough to fit him. He was given $5 and told to buy his own shoes. — Walter Mason, Charlottesville, Va.

World War I brought my grandparents, Joseph L. Dailey and Elizabeth Vogt, together. Joseph graduated from Indiana University in 1918, determined to join the military. It took seven tries, because he was too underweight for his height. At age 18, Elizabeth Vogt joined the war effort by entertaining the troops at Fort Thomas under the stage name Betty Earle. After the war, Joe learned Betty Earle’s company would be near where he was working. My uncle said that Joseph got on a train, found Elizabeth and said, “We are getting married.” They married on Aug. 28, 1920, and she cried all night. Eventually, they moved to New Mexico and raised four children. — Janis Gatschet, Bluffton, S.C.

My grandfather, Marco Perri, was an Italian immigrant who spoke no English when he enlisted in 1918. When Gen. John Pershing inspected his unit in France, he stopped, put his hand on my grandfather’s shoulder and said something. My 5-foot-3-inch grandfather stood proudly at attention, very pleased at this special recognition of his service, only to learn afterward that the general actually said, “Somebody get this soldier a uniform that fits him.” He later earned a Purple Heart, being gassed in the trenches of Meuse-Argonne, and received his naturalization papers at the war’s end. — Donna Lamb, New York

Our grandfather, Sgt. Joseph Andrew Peters, was among the first cohort of African-Americans to be drafted into the National Army during World War I. In May 1917, he delivered a speech at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute, where he was a student, in which he praised the valor of black men on the battlefield: “In this hour of dread, when nations are being annihilated and our own country stands upon the edge of this whirlpool of destruction and needs the loyal support of all its peoples, it is well to remember these things that count for the work of a people. The Negro has never before been drafted and has yet to prove himself disloyal or a coward in the time of danger. He has never been convicted of treason, and a black hand has yet to be raised against the flag of his country. The story of the past guarantees the status of the Negro at present and foreshadows that of the future. Where he has stood, he now stands and will stand. With malice toward none, with charity for all — for his race, for his country, for his God.” After the war, Joseph married Mary Smith, and they went on to have five children. — The Peters family, Dayton, Ohio

My grandmother, Mary Gilroy Baker, was an Irish-American nurse in New York City who took care of men who returned from Europe. One of her patients was an Italian-American man who suffered terribly from being gassed. He fell in love with my grandmother. She refused his offer of marriage, and he was sent home to his family. Over a year later, the boy’s man’s sisters wrote my grandmother to say he had died from the gassing. My grandmother told me this story when I was a teenager. — Annette Kramer, Altamont, N.Y.

My grandmother, Anna Fischer MacArthur, was a nurse in the American Expeditionary Forces. Her best friend and a fellow nurse, Margaret MacArthur, “chose” Anna’s husband for her while they were both serving in France. Margaret arranged for her brother, Donald MacArthur, to meet Anna’s train when she arrived home from the war. On his sister’s request, Donald traveled two days to be on the platform when Anna arrived. She recognized him immediately through the window. They were both lovers of humorous circumstances and laughter, and we used to speculate about their first exchange. They married by year’s end. — Jean Russell, St. Louis and Edward MacArthur, West Grove, Pa.

In 2015, I discovered that my grandmother’s brother was one of the very few Chinese-Americans killed in combat in World War I. Alexander Amador Eça da Silva Kin was the son of my great-grandfather, Hippolytus Eça Da Silva and his first wife, Dr. Yamei Kin, both immigrants from China. They divorced in 1904, and my paternal family believed that Alexander had been taken back to China by his mother. In the 1970s, my grandmother traveled to China looking for Alexander; she found no trace. The truth: Alexander died during the assault on the Hindenburg Line in 1918. He was 22. My grandmother died in 1981, never knowing that her brother was killed in the war when she was 12. — Caitlin McGaw, Davis, Calif.

My great-grandfather, Peter Court, like many young men, was an absolute bottomless pit at meals. When dinner came in the trenches, the men would argue over who should fetch rations. But Peter never argued because he knew he could usually charm the kitchen into a bit more for himself. One evening when dinner was called, Peter volunteered. After successfully talking his way to a little extra food at the kitchen, he headed back with soup for the others, only to find that a German shell had killed his whole squad. He made the best of the situation and sat down and ate every last bit of soup. — Alex Court, New York

Frederick Jeffreys at Camp Borden, Ontario, in 1917.

My grandfather, Frederick Jeffreys, signed up in 1917 for service with the Royal Flying Corps, training at Camp Borden in Canada. What he referred to as his “first crash” occurred in Dundalk, Ontario. A local paper chronicled the “birdman” and his biplane, which made a “graceful flight low down over the village” before “roosting on a wire fence on the Doyle farm.” As my grandfather tried to alight again, the propeller hit another length of fence, and “the machine was disabled and stood on its head.” Propellers proved to be his weakness. On Sept. 17, 1918, as a lieutenant with the 88th Squadron, flying reconnaissance on the Western Front, his plane was shot down — the second crash that he survived. — J. Anderson, Minneapolis

My grand-uncles Jack and Stewart Nicholson were with the Canadian forces at Vimy Ridge in World War I. Their regiment was hit with a German mustard-gas attack. Jack died from the effects of the gas. Stewart was so badly injured that he was sent home to Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, where he lived out his entire life on disability. He was a good and kind man. But I have to wonder what he might have become had he not been gassed, or what Jack might have become if he had lived. — Stu Nicholson, Columbus, Ohio

At 16, my father ran away to join the United States Army. My grandmother wrote to the president to get her son back because he was too young. The Army sent him home. Then he ran away and joined the Navy, but the war ended soon after and he went home again. — Richard Ross, Highland Park, Ill.

I knew my maternal grandfather, Pietro Fontanarosa, only as a toothless old man with a cane. But I recently learned that he was a member of the elite Italian Army mountain fighters. The Alpini division suffered great losses as they hauled artillery into the Italian Alps, digging tunnels and building outposts to keep Austro-Hungarian troops from invading Italy. Weather claimed a large number of the casualties. When he returned from the war, he learned that his wife had died, leaving three children behind. Pietro remarried and eventually moved the entire family to the United States. — Edward Gullo, Bellow Falls, Vt.

My grandfather, Emil Forchheimer, was a soldier in the German Army. He entered the army in 1909 and served until 1917, when he was wounded and released from service. He was awarded the Iron Cross for bravery during battle. He thought of himself as a full German Jewish citizen. When the Nuremberg laws were implemented in the 1930s, Emil would say, “They can’t do this to me; I’m a German citizen. In fact, I’m a German war hero.” Only after his arrest on Kristallnacht did he accept that remaining safe in Germany was impossible. His World War I veteran status, along with a promise to his captors to leave Germany immediately, contributed to his release from the Dachau concentration camp at the end of January 1939. Luckily, he had a relative who sponsored him and his family for immigration to the United States. — Rachel Green, Los Angeles

Both of my grandfathers served in World War I. My father’s father, Oliver Jennings Davis Sr., had a good war. He was a secretary in Paris. He once told me about how he and a few friends stole a jeep and went AWOL when the armistice was signed. He even had a French girlfriend named Genevieve, and they stayed in touch long enough to exchange photos of grandchildren. My mother’s father, Paul Howard, was a foot soldier in the United States Army and fought in the trenches of the Meuse-Argonne forest. He could always be brought to tears when he heard taps being played, and until he died at 86, he could recall the awful sounds of bombs exploding and men dying in the forest around him. — Elizabeth Davis, East Corinth, Vt.

My grandfather left school before the eighth grade and spent much of World War I in the trenches. One night, he was talking to his best friend, who was next to him in the dark. He didn’t answer. He reached over to see if he was asleep and put his hand into his friend’s shattered brain case. He had been shot in the night. — Nancy Darling, Oberlin, Ohio

I have always loved this photo of my grandfather, George Street (left), and an unidentified buddy, taken in 1918 at an Army training camp in Texas. Someone has written on the back, “Two bums.” My grandfather did not see combat, but to me this image conjures up the friendship and camaraderie of two men thrown together under special circumstances, whose paths crossed briefly, then separated, never to cross again. — Stan Vernon, Portland, Ore.

On May 31, 1918, the troop transport U.S.S. President Lincoln was torpedoed and sunk as it sailed from Brest, France, for the United States. My grandfather, Joseph Cleaveland, was an Army private and one of many soldiers headed home because of illness or wounds — in his case, pneumonia. Fortunately, he made it to a lifeboat that was picked up by a Navy destroyer and returned to Brest. Frances M. Daly was serving as a nurse in the Army hospital in Brest as of May 1918. She cared for my grandfather both before he was loaded onto the U.S.S. President Lincoln and after he returned, following the sinking. He credited her for saving his life. They did not fall in love, but she and my grandparents became lifelong friends. — David Bell, Phoenix

My grandfather was gassed in France and went to a hospital. The story passed down through my family is that he wandered out of the hospital and was declared dead. His belongings were given away, but it turned out that he survived and returned to marry my grandmother. I found this letter after my grandmother died. It was tied with a pink ribbon to a few other letters from him. — Joan Carney, Northfield, Mass.

My maternal grandfather, Jacob Glass, was an infantryman in World War I. By the time I knew him, he was bald. “Why are you bald, Grandpa?” I asked him one day. Running his hand quickly just above his head, he replied, “A bomb flew over my head, shaving off my hair, and I’ve been bald ever since.” I was young. I believed him. — Dan Baker, New York


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