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World War I Homecomings

The following is a guest post by Irene Lule, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project (VHP) this summer.

In today’s highly visual world, a popular type of YouTube video is the “soldier coming home” video. These clips are fairly basic in their premise. Someone captures the moment a service member returns home to a spouse, parent, sibling or even a pet, and the viewer vicariously experiences the emotional moment of learning a loved one is home and out of harm’s way. These same scenes have undoubtedly been playing out for as long as soldiers have been coming home, but to learn about the experiences of previous generations, we must rely on the words they left behind. In the case of World War I veterans, diaries, correspondence and memoirs all captured the pain of separation, and the joy of returning home.

Sepia photo of four men in jumpsuits with their arms around each other.  Men are outside building.

Philip Scholz (right) with three fellow soldiers, Philip E. Scholz Collection (AFC/2001/001/00864), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

As a Junior Fellow with the Veterans History Project, my primary goal has been to increase the discoverability of our World War I collections. To this end, my project partner, Justina Moloney, and I were assigned to develop biographical and descriptive information on several of these collections. The end goal is to create a digital tool, a finding aid, for greater accessibility and discoverability of the collections. The following paragraphs will provide snippets of reunions or “coming home” moments for several World War I veterans, and highlight the impact early transportation and communication technology had on these veterans. They each present a unique insight into the war and America from 1917 to1919.

Sepia portrait man in US military uniform with hat.

Portrait of Ewing Miller in uniform, Ewing Harry Miller Collection (AFC/2001/001/104012), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Ewing Harry Miller served in the U.S. Army from 1917 to 1919. Originally from Terre Haute, Indiana, Miller completed basic training at Camp Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, before moving to Camp Funston, Kansas. In February 1918, Miller was assigned to Camp Morrison, Virginia, an embarkation base for the U.S. Army. By early March 1918, Miller and the rest of the 481st Construction Squadron set sail for France, where he would remain until July 1919. Miller maintained a diary throughout his service, and before he left for France, documented a surprise visit to his brother, Warren.

The surprise of my life came Sat after writing in this book, when the captain real casually told us we could go home after this over Sat & Sunday. Sanford & I promptly took advantage & ran for the station where we luckily caught a train immediately. When I arrived in T. Haute it was dark as could be 1 o’clock & I went out to Warrens & scared them with a midnight call. My Sunday was most enjoyable & the food & warmth were an inspiration.

Interestingly, VHP has another Ewing Miller collection in the archive. He served during WWII, and just so happens to be this veteran’s son and namesake. Ewing Miller, II’s collection is here.

Sepia portrait of officer in uniform in studio.  Man is standing with arm behind his back.

Portrait of Peter Shemonsky in uniform, Peter Shemonsky Collection (AFC/2001/001/38915), Veterans History Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress.

Peter Shemonsky was born in West Prussia, Germany, in 1878. After immigrating to the United States, he enlisted in the United States Army in 1898. Serving during the Spanish-American War and World War I, Shemonsky was stationed in all parts of the world including The Philippines, Puerto Rico, Texas, Massachusetts and Kentucky. The letters he wrote while in The Philippines increasingly tell of his desire to return to the United States and his wife. Their only form of communication was correspondence. After three years in The Philippines, he was able to see his wife, Olga, in California. Unfortunately, the logistics involved in coordinating a smooth reunion presented setbacks. Shemonsky returned from The Philippines through Angel Island, California. His wife lived in Connecticut. Shemonsky wrote on April 21, 1914 to Olga as he waited for her on the island. He expressed his frustrations towards bureaucracy, and their delay in seeing one another.

Here I have been since the 11th of April and have not yet received any orders. I telegraphed to you the other day and I was in hopes that orders would be in any day and than [sic] I would let you know where to come. However I am still in the dark hanging around Frisco and this island and you can bet there is no plasure [sic] here for me (especially without you) as I have had my mind made up to meet you so soon.

Edward Loudenbeck was a farmer through and through. Born in rural Iowa, he spent the vast majority of his life in Michigan. He was drafted in the U.S. Army, and reported on September 21, 1917. In addition to keeping a very detailed diary, he corresponded with his two sisters, a brother, and other family on a continuous basis. In early 1919, Loudenbeck expressed his eagerness to return to the United States after nearly two years of service. By this time, he was with the Occupation Forces in Germany. He wrote to his sister on May 17, 1919:

The world is using me fine now and I [sic] feeling happy too for we are to start back to the good old U.S.A. and will be on our way long before this reaches you…Happy! Why shouldn’t I be for I want to get home and see you all so much. We have had to wait OH! so long now our turn is coming seems I can’t hold myself.

Unfortunately, problems confirming the Treaty of Versailles delayed his return. As a member of the Army of Occupation, Loudenbeck remained in Germany in case war was to be declared again. He wrote to his sister again on May 23, 1919, from Urbar, Germany.

Having had my mind all set to stay here till July first at the soonest, was agreeably surprised to learn a few days ago we were to set sail by June 7. Happy as could be getting paper work ready, then here comes an order that troop movements are suspended till farther [sic] notice. Say – but the boy [sic] were blue and how we did rage because Fritz didn’t sign Peace so we could have gone on our schedule time.

Loudenbeck finally embarked from Europe on July 25, 1919, and arrived home by train on August 9, 1919.

Frank Van Pelt was born in rural Arkansas and raised on a farm near Newkirk, Oklahoma. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in June 1917. Serving in a radio company, Van Pelt’s duties included listening to German messages sent over radio signals, transcribing the messages, and submitting them to code breakers. He was discharged on April 29, 1919. He wrote in his memoir:

‘Home at Last.’ The first to greet me was Carlo, who came up the hill barking at me. But after smelling me over he recoganized [sic] me and he nearly had a fit, he was so glad to see me.

My experience with the Veterans History Project has been emotionally complex for two reasons: the veterans’ youth, and their homesickness. Nearly all of the men whose collections I worked with were in their twenties when they entered the U.S. Army and left for Europe. Away for the first time, their letters tend to compare what they saw in Europe to life back at home. From their observations on French farming practices, food, religion and family, the reader is made keenly aware of their sadness. Not only were they far from home, they were in a hostile environment filled with disease, lice and death.

In a survey by YouGov.com, only 35% of Americans surveyed knew the year the United States entered World War I. As time moves along, it is important to remember not just the facts and figures, but the perspectives of the veterans who served. Though the last American World War I veteran died in 2011, surviving written materials provide an emotional connection between 1917 and 2017.

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