Gee’s War, 1918

This is a guest post by Candice Buchanan, reference librarian for history and genealogy in the Researcher and Reference Services Division, and Meg McAleer, historical specialist for modern diplomatic, military, and presidential collections in the Manuscript Division. Candice Buchanan donated the 1918 James E. Gee Journal to the Library in 2021. 

On October 3, 1939, as another world war was about to repeat history across Europe, a local hero of the First World War was interviewed by his hometown newspaper in Monongahela, Washington County, Pennsylvania.[1] Retired Lieutenant Colonel James Edgar Gee (1873-1941) laid before the reporter a fascinatingly uncommon record of World War I – a bound volume with the German words Skizzen-Buch printed on top. Skizzen-Buch translates into English as sketchbook, evoking a languid afternoon spent drawing outdoors. Gee used the book to chronicle his experiences as a prisoner of war (POW).

A light brown sketchbook with the words "Skizzen-Buch" in dark brown script on the cover. The cover is tied on the right with a brown ribbon.

Cover, James E. Gee Journal, 1918. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Gee was serving as a first lieutenant with Company A, 110th Infantry, 28th Division, American Expeditionary Forces, when he was captured on July 15, 1918, during the Champagne-Marne Offensive in France.[2] After having been in France for only two months—and just three days at the front—he spent the remainder of the war at a POW camp in Villingen, Germany, where most American officers were interned.

Four men in uniform pose for a photograph. Two men are standing in front of a wall and two are seated in front on a wooden bench.

Gee, standing on the right, with other American POW officers at Villingen, Germany, 1918. James E. Gee Journal, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Only a small percentage of American soldiers, aviators, and sailors endured German POW camps during World War I – several thousand were taken prisoner compared to the more than two million U.S. military personnel deployed overseas.[3] So Gee had a story to tell that was unlike most, but even more poignantly, during those long, uncertain months in camp from July to November, he had made it a point to be a witness to history on behalf of his comrades.

Gee repurposed the Skizzen-Buch as a chronicle, scrapbook, and handwritten camp roster, all in one. He augmented it with local postcards, camp currency and ephemera, and transcribed communications. Attached to one of the pages is Gee’s honor card. This document particularly gripped the reporter in 1939. Not unlike a passport, Gee would surrender it twice a week in exchange for a guarded, two-hour walk outside the camp through the Black Forest. The card recorded Gee’s pledge not to attempt escape upon “penalty of death.”

Gee did not narrate his thoughts or invite us into his interior world. His book is other directed. He wrote about himself only on the first page, identifying himself as the book’s owner as of August 28, 1918. Although he did not sustain a narrative, we suspect that he was intent on telling a story that held purpose. Gee knew instinctively that captivity can erode personal identity. He invited his fellow prisoners to declare themselves by recording their name, rank, military unit, date and place of capture, and home address. More than eighty of them did so. Some went beyond that. They used his proffered pen to state who they were apart from the war and their captivity. They gave a shout out to their colleges—the U.S. military academies, Columbia, Penn State, and Princeton, among others. They self-identified as members of fraternities and varsities. They did so to remind themselves of who they once and perhaps still were.

A handwritten note with a photograph of a man in uniform in the lower right corner of the page.

Thomas L. McConchie, Jr., journal entry, [1918]. James E. Gee Journal, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

The German commandant allowed a local photographer to enter the camp to take pictures, which the prisoners could buy.[4] Gee carefully cut out head shots of prisoners, more than fifty of them, and pasted them next to their entries. He also included group shots and scenes of the camp. Gee is easy to pick out in a group. He resembled a solidly built prizefighter.

Allowing photography was likely a propaganda move rather than an act of kindness. Germany had intended to adhere to international conventions for the humane treatment of prisoners. Yet it had not prepared adequately for a long war that would yield two and a half million Allied prisoners, more than four thousand of whom were Americans. As the war progressed, blockades, a ravaged countryside, and labor shortages devastated the food supply. Prisoners ate what their captors did, which was not much. Because most American officers were at Villingen, aid was easier for Americans to coordinate than it was for Allies whose prisoners were dispersed.[5] The American Red Cross sent food rations every ten days, allowing prisoners to eat better than their guards. The YMCA sent athletic equipment, books, checkers, and chess sets to the prisoners to keep them physically and mentally fit.[6]

Perhaps because of this aid, the Germans were able to maintain Villingen as a model officers’ camp, even a propaganda camp.[7] The photographer served a purpose. The prisoners’ faces that confront us in Gee’s journal are full, not lean. Their uniforms are intact. Camp scenes show a theater and music room. “[D]o not part from Germany with hatred against us,” Gee recorded the commandant telling them after the armistice.

Yet two funerals bookended Gee’s months as a prisoner, highlighting the reality of war. Soon after his capture, Gee witnessed the German burial with full battlefield honors of Quentin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt’s twenty-year-old son who was killed in action when his plane was shot down.[8] Gee’s journal ends with the solemn funeral of fellow prisoner Otto L. Mowry who died of disease at Villingen.

Groups of people stand in a cemetery with a church in the background.

Photograph of funeral for Otto L. Mowry, November 4, 1918. James E. Gee Journal, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

We do not know how many hands Gee’s Skizzen-Buch passed through following his death in 1941, just before the United States entered World War II. The journal’s history was eclipsed by the years and events that followed. But in 2018, as centennial ceremonies commemorated World War I across the nation, Gee’s journal resurfaced in western Pennsylvania and roused the attention of local genealogists. The 28th Division was prominent in the extensive research and outreach happening in the area. Gee was a native of Washington County and a member of the local Company A, but just south in Greene County, where their men had served with Company K, a new World War I Memorial was being planned. The volunteers involved were profiling every fallen soldier, and the community was participating by delving into family archives to share letters, photographs, and other meaningful wartime ephemera. Gee’s journal was provided to Greene County’s Cornerstone Genealogical Society as part of this project with the request that an appropriate repository be found to preserve it. The World War I Memorial research team realized the journal’s significance not only to Gee’s life story, but more broadly to the memories and families of the other men Gee identified; to the communities from which they hailed; and to the country for which they served. With content relevant to so many men from so many locations, it was clear that this record needed to be discoverable by researchers beyond Gee’s own community. And so, Gee’s little book began a journey that led to the Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room where it is available as the James E. Gee Journal, 1918.

A red-haired woman wearing a pink Library of Congress sweatshirt, smiles for a photograph, while kneeling with her hand on the grave of James E. Gee.

Librarian Candice Buchanan at the grave of James E. Gee in Monongahela Cemetery, Monongahela, Washington County, Pennsylvania, November 2021. Candice cofounded the new World War I Memorial in neighboring Greene County. When Gee’s journal was provided to the local genealogical society in 2018, she was asked to find an appropriate repository to preserve it.

Gee’s journal preserves a perspective of the war that we rarely get to glimpse. For the specific people and places neatly scrawled into his Skizzen-Buch, the value of personal and historical connections is profound and clear. Equally important, Gee’s account provides historical context and understanding for other individuals who lived similar experiences, but may have left no such specific records behind. And, of course, in the big picture of history, Gee’s record provides rare insight into the personal experiences of American soldiers in prison camps during the Great War.

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[1]The Daily Goes-a-Visiting,” interview with Lt. Col. James E. Gee, The Daily Republican, Monongahela, Pennsylvania, October 3, 1939, 8.

[2] Association of the 110th Infantry, Pennsylvania. History of the 110th Infantry (10th Pa.) of the 28th Division, U. S. A., 1917-1919: A Compilation of Orders, Citations, Maps, Records And Illustrations Relating to the 3rd Pa. Inf., 10th Pa. Inf., And 110th U. S. Inf. (The Association, 1920), 54, 57-58.

[3] Michael Clodfelter, Warfare and Armed Conflicts: A Statistical Encyclopedia of Casualty and Other Figures, 1492-2015, 4th ed. (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2017), 432-433.

[4] Rebecca Maksel, “Diary of a World War I Ace: Air Combat, Prison Camp, and the Will to Fly Again,” Air & Space Magazine (September 2014). Maksel writes about a very similar journal in the collections of the National Air and Space Museum that was kept by Gee’s fellow POW Zenos Ramsey Miller at Villingen.

[5] Kenneth Steuer, “First World War Central Power Prison Camps,” History Faculty Publications 1 (2013).

[6]The Daily Goes-a-Visiting.”

[7] Steuer, “First World War Central Power Prison Camps.”

[8]The Daily Goes-a-Visiting.”

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