By Mark Bassett
It started with a question from Shane Peterson, “I am trying to get a sense of how the attached orders (to return WWI military dead) might have “looked” like. What kind of rail cars and standard practice would be used?” A simple question until you look at the orders; they are dated October 5, 1920 almost two years after the end of World War 1. Why were World War 1 dead being returned to their families two years after the end of the war? What is the back story? I was intrigued by the question and the orders. What happened and why?
Prior to World War 1, military dead were buried close to where they had fallen, in a hastily dug trench or pit. The bodies were grouped together and the dirt thrown back on top. A few words and the rest of the soldiers moved out, leaving the dead behind with little or no markings. That was the tradition until the Civil War. The extreme number of casualties, at least 750,000, forced a change in policy. Individual battles had tens of thousands of casualties. After the Civil War battle of Shiloh in 1862, one of the deadliest battles of the war, Major General Ulysses S. Grant wrote of a field “so covered with dead that it would have been possible to walk across the clearing, in any direction, stepping only on dead bodies without a foot touching the ground.” The question became what to do with so many bodies? The scope and the numbers were beyond anything that had ever happened in the past. One week after Antietam, the dead were still unburied, a Union doctor
described “at least a thousand blackened bloated corpses with blood and gas protruding from every orifice, and maggots holding high carnival over their heads.” Obviously change was needed, the tremendous numbers of bodies could no longer be ignored. On July 17, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed a law authorizing the creation of new national cemeteries to bury the war dead. In an ironic twist of fate, one of the new national cemeteries was put on General Robert E. Lee’s estate outside Washington, D. C. It became Arlington National Cemetery. This then became our national tradition, bury our war dead in national cemeteries.
The tradition changed with the Spanish-American War. President William McKinley was a Civil War veteran who remember what the battlefields looked like after the battles. His new policy was that when the guns became silent at the end of the war, teams were sent to bring the war dead home. It was done again after the 1901–1902 Philippine-American War.
The New York Times hailed these efforts as an “innovation in the world’s history of warfare.” It was fitting, the newspaper declared, that the bodies of soldiers who died abroad “should be gathered with tender care and restored to home and kindred.” World War 1 changed that policy. At the end of World War 1, it was estimated that more than 70,000 Americans had been buried in temporary military cemeteries overseas. From the article, Rest in Peace? Bringing Home U.S. War Dead, “Within the United States, powerful figures—including General Pershing and much of the military leadership—organized to argue that burying servicemen at the battlefield with their fallen comrades offered the greatest glory. Former president Theodore Roosevelt spoke to this when his son Quentin, an American pilot, was shot down over France in July 1918, then laid to rest with full military honors by German troops. Roosevelt and his wife, Edith, objected when told their son’s remains would be brought home. “To us it is painful and harrowing long after death to move the poor body from which the soul has fled,” he wrote. “We greatly prefer that Quentin shall continue to lie on the spot where he fell in battle and where the foreman buried him.”
Meanwhile our allies were against the idea. The British government was worried that their citizens would want their war dead returned. And the French were appalled at the thought of train loads of American war dead moving through their country side. Continuing in the article, Rest in Peace? Bringing Home U.S. War Dead, “Standing against all this logic and power were thousands of Americans who demanded that the government bring home their dead. They contended that the government had to do what it had done in wars before. One mother from Brooklyn wrote: “My son sacrificed his life to America’s call, and now you must as a duty of yours bring my son back to me.”
“Another begged for her son’s return in terms that illustrated the lasting power of the Good Death ideal: “Pleas send his body home to us as soon as you can and tell me…how bad he was hurt and if he had a chance to say any thing be for he died oh if I could of bin with him.”“Nearly a year after the armistice—two years after the first of Pershing’s troops had been killed—a compromise was forged. The War Department announced in October 1919 that it would survey each of the fallen soldiers’ next of kin. They could choose to bring home remains or have them buried in newly created American military cemeteries in Europe. Ballots were sent to nearly 80,000 families, and in kitchens and living rooms across the country, the bereaved sat down to decide how best to honor their loved ones.”
“In late 1920, the French finally yielded to American pressure and lifted their ban on the return of bodies. The United States spent the next two years and more than $30 million—$400 million in today’s dollars—recovering its dead. The remains of 46,000 soldiers were returned to the States at their families’ request, while another 30,000—roughly 40 percent of the total—were laid to rest in military cemeteries in Europe.”
This answers Shane’s question. The orders that he shared with me state, “SPECIAL ORDERS, October 5, 1920. Under the provisions of paragraph 87, Army Regulations, Sgt. Claude G. Oneal, 1st Field Signal Battalion, as escort, will proceed from Hoboken, N. J., to Atlanta, Georgia, accompanying the remains of the following deceased soldiers enroute to destinations set opposite their respective names.” The orders then list 37 names, all of them privates except for one civilian, two corporals and one sergeant. The orders conclude with, “The journey is necessary for the public service.”
Shane’s question combined two of my interests, military history and the Nevada Northern Railway. A quick trip to the courthouse lawn to the Memorial, “IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO MADE THE SUPREME SACRIFICE FOR THEIR COUNTRY.” On the World War 1 plaque, it lists the names of 35 individuals who made the ultimate sacrifice to their country and they came from White Pine County. Now I wondered, did any of White Pine County’s war dead come home as part of the effort in 1920? If so, then of course the Nevada Northern Railway would have been involved. And then I wondered, who were the people behind the names?
World War 1 had started in Europe on July 28, 1914. It was the first modern war and defied convention. Instead of two, three or four countries declaring war, over 18 countries were involved. The war literally spread around the planet. It was truly global in scope. World War 1 was also the first industrial war where modern weapons were first used such as the machine gun, airplane and submarine. All three weapons changed how the war was fought. The machine gun was responsible for the shockingly high causality lists and the start of trench warfare. The airplane brought war to the sky. Not only did soldiers have to worry about the enemy in front of them but also above them. The submarine changed the war at sea. It was able to sink ships without warning. The first a ship knew it was under attack was when it was able to spot the torpedoes heading towards it. Or when the torpedoes exploded in the ship.
The United States did its best to try and stay out of the war. And frankly the United States was not ready. In late 1914, the number soldiers in the U. S. Army was less than 100,000. In the First Battle of the Marne that took place in France on September 7-12, 1914, the strength of the combined Armies was 2,556,000 soldiers. The casualties were over 100,000 PER DAY! In other words, the U. S. Army would have been wiped out in one day.
Congress passed the National Defense Act of 1916 authorized the growth of the army to 165,000 and the National Guard to 450,000 by 1921. But by 1917 the U. S. Army had only grown to about 121,000 soldiers, with the National Guard numbering about 181,000 soldiers. By 1916, it had become clear that if the United States became involved in the conflict in Europe, it would require a far larger army.
President Wilson wished to use only volunteers to supply the troops needed to fight; it soon became clear that this would be impossible. After war was declared on April 6, 1917, Wilson asked for the army to increase to a force of one million soldiers. Six weeks after war had been declared only 73,000 individuals had volunteered for service. Of the 35 names listed on the World War 1 Monument here in Ely, about half volunteered, 17 individuals, the rest were drafted. This followed the national trend. By the end of World War I, some 2 million men volunteered for various branches of the armed services, and some 2.8 million had been drafted. That meant that almost half of the almost 4.8 million Americans who served in the armed forces volunteered.
How do I know this? When I started researching who were the men behind the names I found that the United States World War 1 Draft Registration Cards from 1917-1918 were online and searchable. This was eerie and very interesting. During World War 1 there were three registrations. The first was on June 5, 1917, was for all men between the ages of 21 and 31. The second, on June 5, 1918, registered those who attained age 21 after June 5, 1917. A supplemental registration, included in the second registration, was held on August 24, 1918, for those becoming 21 years old after June 5, 1918. The last registration was held on September 12, 1918, for men age 18 through 45.
I searched for James Yelland. He registered on June 5, 1917 with his two brothers. He was 22 years old, tall and of slender build. His eyes were blue and his hair brown. He was a natural born citizen. He was born on July 23, 1894 in Spring Valley, Nevada and he resided at Taft Nevada. He was a farmer and sheepman. He was self-employed at Taft Nevada. He was not financially supporting anyone and was single. All of this information was on his Draft Registration Card.
If the name Yelland sounds familiar to you, that could be because our airport was named after him. James Yelland was the first person to die in the army from White Pine County. He died on January 25, 1918 while ill with pneumonia at the embarkation hospital at Hoboken, New York. The airport was dedicated in his honor in 1928.
His death gave a clue to another serious issue that was happening at the same time. The 1918 flu pandemic was from January 1918 through December 1920. It was an unusually deadly influenza pandemic, it infected 500 million people across the world. It resulted in the deaths of 50 to 100 million people making it one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. January 1918 is generally considered the start of the pandemic, but cases were reported earlier. The young men who entered the Army from White Pine County had to face multiple dangers, disease, submarines and of course enemy bullets. Fortunately, no American troopships were torpedoed. But of the 116,516 American soldiers, sailors and marines who died in World War 1, over 50% died of non-combat related deaths.
Because of the initial question that started this research, I was curious how many of the men on the White Pine County World War 1 Memorial Plaque came back to White Pine County and if the Nevada Northern Railway ran a special train for them. You can imagine my surprise when I could only find two who did come back for burial in White Pine County – James Yelland and Oliver M. Peacock. You could push that three is you county Horace G. Bliss who is buried in Garrison, Utah.
This was confusing, based on my research, I knew that families had the option of having their loved ones returned to them at government expense. So why had only three come home? The answer is in how you define home.
Of the 35 names on the Memorial, I could only find three that were born in White Pine County. Huh? This was the surprise that I found looking at the draft cards and death records. What happened? In 1900, the population of White Pine County was 1,961. In 1920, the population had grown to 8,935, an increase of 355%. White Pine County was booming thanks to the copper mine, mill and smelter. This led people from around the country and around the world to come here to make money. And this is reflected in what I found. Gus Bouzas and Bill Margeas were from Greece. Bouzas is buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery in France. And Margeas is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, in Washington D.C. Frank H. Brenton was from Nova Scotia, Canada, he too is buried in Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery. Bouzas and Benton were employed by Nevada Consolidated Copper Company (N.C.C.C.Co.). Margeas was an unemployed miner. Cornelius Molenbeck was from Holland and died of influenza while training in Arizona where he is buried. His grave is not marked with gravestone. He was a blacksmith working for Frank E. Carlin in central Ely. James A. Jewell, Yaro Klepel, Frank H. Lathrap Jr., William M. Magarrell, Richard B. Ramsey, James Siri, and Earnest J. Stover were all employed by N.C.C.Co. Alvin P. Carlson was employed as a Boiler Maker Helper by the Nevada Northern Railway. Melville O. Talley was an unemployed locomotive fireman from South Boston, Virginia. It is possible he came out here looking for a job and got drafted instead.
Of the 35 names on the Monument, I found the burial places of twenty-two of them. Of the twenty-two, only six are buried overseas, the rest came home but were buried in their hometowns that are all over the United States. I could not find any information for six of the names on the Memorial and I could not find the burial locations of for seven of the individuals. As I read the Draft Registration Cards and burial notices I felt I was beginning to know and understand the men whose names are inscribed on the Memorial. They weren’t anyone special, just average Joes trying to better themselves.
Two names stood out, Fred Lundgren and Richard B. Ramsey. Lundgren was a contractor in Hamilton. He died on November 10, 1918. The war ended at the 11th hour, on the 11th day, in the 11th month in 1918. In other words, less than a day after he died.
Richard B. Ramsey was a mill man working at McGill. He survived the war to only die eighteen days after the war of either influenza or perhaps combat wounds in France. He is buried in Milledgeville in Pennsylvania. When I found his grave there as a Memorial Card with his picture on it. There is a poem on it that I found rather chilling, “He left his home in perfect health; He looked so young and brave. We little thought how soon he’d be Laid in a soldier’s grave.” He was 24 years, 11 months, and 3 days old when he died. I still have a lot of research to do. I want to fill in the blanks and learn more about the individuals whose names are on the Monument.
If you have any information and can help fill in the blanks please send me an e-mail. I have a lot more questions than I have answers too. And on this Veterans Day, take a moment to stop by the White Pine County War Memorial and give thanks. “Because freedom is not free.”
Down the Tracks at the Nevada
Northern Railway Museum
The Nevada Northern Railway Museum is a designated National Historic Landmark. Voted the state’s Best Rural Museum and the Best Place to Take the Kids by readers of Nevada Magazine, the Nevada Northern Railway Museum also has been featured on Modern Marvels, American Restorations and on PBS. For more information, call 775-289-2085, log onto www.NNRY.com or to get the latest news “Like” the Railway’s Facebook page.The museum, gift shop and ticket office hours are: Mondays through Saturday 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, on Sundays 8 am to 4 pm. We are closed on Tuesdays.Polar Express Trains start November 19, 2016.