Tag Archives: france

From the Trenches to Toledo: Letters Tell The Personal Stories of War

By the time the United States entered World War One in the spring of 1917, the  earth had already been shuddering with the thunder of battle for three years through Europe and on the high seas. Many Americans, but not all, were ready to join the fight against the Kaiser and put an end to the long nightmare of German ambition.

Toledo, like the rest of the country, sent her boys to the front to help in the cause. During this time, the news stories of the day reflect an emboldened American spirit of pride and patriotism and a compliant willingness to sacrifice  both blood and treasure to the effort. Toledo did both. Thousands of dollars of were raised to help fund the war through what were called Liberty Loans and Toledo was one of the top leaders in the country for such fund raising, and likewise, Toledoans also offered thousands of young men to fund the need for human lives on the front lines in France, in what would become a brutal trench war of attrition against the hated Germans.   By the time it was over on November 11th, it had been the costliest war in terms of human life, in the history of humanity. Over 8 million dead. For the United States, 116,000 military troops died in battle or from disease or accidents in the short 19 months of deployment.  Over 400 young men from the Toledo area would not return home alive, having died on the battlefield, or of disease or by accident.

The Toledo News Bee newspaper at the time was a great repository of war information, reporting daily on the situation at home and abroad. One of the most poignant features I found in the pages of the newspaper were the letters from Toledo “Yanks” serving in France during those months just before the fall of the Germans in November of 1918. The letters lend a human perspective to the events. A truly American perspective through the eyes of young men, many of whom had never traveled much beyond Lucas County, but whose sensibilities were now transported to a strange new world against the harsh landscape of war that would change their lives forever.

“When we landed in France we were shipped in boxcars, they packed us in like sardines. We had to split up and sleep in shifts during the ride at night.” So writes William Kieswetter to his father J.L. Kieswetter of 828 Michigan St. ” The speed of the French trains would make one seasick. One could walk backward twice as fast as we moved forward. We were five hours in going 20 miles. On the night of October 31st, we saw several bombs dropped on Nancy, killing many people.”

Private Edward Major wrote to his father F. Major at 1806 Ray St. Toledo..” I was wounded in the thigh on the morning of November 1st, just after daylight. We were going over the top. As we went over the top, a gang of German machine guns opened fire on us. We jumped into a shell hole and listened to the bullets buzz over our head. Soon it became quiet, so one of the fellows said “let’s go”, so we started. Started was all. From the minuteswere showed ourselves we drew a hornet’s nest of machine fire. But  this time our fellows kept going. I was one of the lucky ones. I got plugged. But it is not so bad, these hospitals are a great place to get some rest.”

“Wine, women and song are what Paris lives under” so wrote J Frank Coveney to his sister Mrs. Stanley Lanker in Point Place. I never saw the likes of it before in all the cities I’ve been in, both in the United State and over here.” Coveney goes on to write, “We are billeted and set in a small building about 10′ x 12′. It is pretty crowded. This is one of the battlefields and graves are all around us. One grave they say has 10,000 French soldiers in it. A good sized city – isn’t it?” Some of the German prisoners are sure bum looking fellows and gaunty. They seem to be glad to be taken. I guess their stomachs are full of war.”

For some of the Toledo soldiers, the adventure of war also involved other adventures besides those on the battlefield. Louis Gerding of Toledo wrote to his mother Ann Gerding of 119 Maumee Avenue about his new kindled friendship with a “French girl”.

“I’ve got the best little girl over here. She is teaching me French and I am teaching her English. I sent you her picture about a month ago. If you didn’t get it, here’s another one. In another month, your son will be able to speak French. Just think of it! We had a party about two weeks ago. I sure had a good time We had all the beer and eats we wanted. We also had a little show and also the band was here, so you see we never get time to get homesick.”

The sight of an American soldier, a Yank, with the companionship of a French girl was apparently not an unusual occurrence, so penned, Toledoan David Redding of the Chief Surgeon’s office to his father John Redding who worked for the Wabash railroad and the nephew of Rev. Thomas Redding of Maumee. “Everywhere..one can see an American soldier with a girl, while the French soldiers walk alone. The American soldiers are the cakes-of-the-walk in the town. I am learning French rapidly. I don’t mean I can speak fluently but just can make myself understood.

Corporal Bennie Rosencranz of Toledo wrote to his family that it was candy that was in short supply in France. ” We get all of the tobacco and cigarettes we need and at less than they cost in the United States. Candy is very scarce, however, and when the Y.M.C.A. gets a supply, which is not very often, it lasts about a day.”

Other Toledo soldiers wrote of their eagerness to defeat the Germans and come home.

“At last we are here and ready to do our best to lick the Kaiser.” So wrote Toledoan Clinton Hart to Mrs. John Holzer of 1230 Oak Street. “We are all in fine condition, we were on the boat just 17 days.” One cannot judge the beauty of France by these camps, for Army camps in war times are not pleasing to the eye. Only old men and women are to be seen. All of the men who can wear the uniform have gone to war, but the women are making a wonderful showing. They keep the chief industry going, which seems to be the making of wine in this locality. Our long days of drilling are over and now the real show is about to begin. I feel good enough to lick any German that walks and I sure will hand it to him.”

Others were even more  belligerent in their regard for the Germans. “We are over here to lick Germany, all of us in the Army are willing to do that.” wrote Shirley C. Matheny of company C to his mother Mrs. J.W. Matheny of 319 12th Street. “If we can’t make these baby killing, conceited pig-headed Huns crawl and say Kamerad to us then we don’t want to come home. They have stopped calling us the contemptible little Yankee army now, we’ve gone up in the world. They now call us barbarians and they know whenever they are facing Yanks, they had better fight like hell or beat it while the beating is good. It’s very simple, get Fritz on the run and keep him running and the war will soon be over.”

For many of the young Toledo soldiers deployed to Europe, the experience was one of cultural enlightenment. They were getting the chance to see a world they had only heard of, or read about before. Many communicated those experiences to their loved ones back home.  Carl Hoefflin wrote to his mother Mrs. George Hoefflin of 1919 Hurd Street about his life in France The people surely do live strange over here. They wear wooden shoes. The girls drive three or four horses. The buildings are made of stone and are very pretty. The streets are also beautiful.”

“About 25 of us are living in a sawmill at the present time“, said Private Geogre Fulkert of 731 Pinewood, in a letter to his wife and family“Some of the boys are living in hay lofts. There are numerous ancient buildings here. One church is 289 years old. Some of the houses are older than this church. This is one place that indicates what women can do. They go out in the field and pitch hay and they operate street cars and do other things that I thought a woman could not do.”

And Miss Mary Ges of 137 Steele St. read in a letter from her soldier friend Walter Dieffenbach of his observations of this strange and foreign land. “It is rather interesting to note that the movie scenes and descriptions of French rural life depict conditions very accurately.”The farm houses, barns. sheds, etc that are built around a central court are very picturesque, but the romance of sleeping in the second story of a cowshed, as fell to our lot, is nothing to be enlarged upon from the standpoint of comfort.

And while many of the Toledo Yanks reveled in these new experiences, they were also quick to point out that There is “no place like home”. Ferd Gladieux, a Company B machine gunner of Starr Avenue in East Toledo in writing to his father, George, summed it up this way.  “ We boys are all having a good time and all enjoying good health, so there are no kicks coming from any of us. I just got through with my breakfast. It was some breakfast. I had seven eggs. It makes me think of home and it’s the one thing Uncle Sam doesn’t give us.”

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THE VALENTINE HEARD ROUND THE WORLD STOPPED IN TOLEDO

It’s Valentine’s day, and one of the largest and most enduring valentines ever received in the United States happened this week, some 63 year ago, in 1949. And you may not know it, but a piece of that once famous valentine resides in Northwest Ohio.  It was called the “Gratitude Train”, or the Merci Train.  A 49 box car train of thank you’s extended to the citizens of the United States from the citizens of France.   Each of the cars filled with hundreds of gifts, artifacts and treasures, large and small, from the French people, as a heartfelt expression of gratitude for the American’s outpouring of love in the form of the famous “Friendship Train” of 1947.

This was the train that Americans sent to help French families get back on their feet after enduring the ravages of World War Two.  The Friendship Train, first proposed by columnist Drew Pearson inspired some 20 million Americans to donate enough items of food, clothing, medicine, money, toys and books to fill 700 boxcars that traveled the nation’s breadth on its way to New York where it was shipped to France.

Overwhelmed by the generosity of the Americans, the French citizens in February of 1949 reciprocated, sending their own Merci Train to the Americans.   It arrived in New York Harbor by ship on February 2nd, 1949 and each state was designated to receive one of the boxcars. The gifts in the 49th car were to be divided between Washington D.C. and the territory of Hawaii.

The Merci Train Arrives in the U.S.

In Ohio, the small four wheeled World War I era boxcar, known as a Voiture, or a 40 and 8 car because it could either carry 40 men or eight horses , arrived in Cleveland on the 10th of February.   Thousands of residents of that city, along with a host of public officials flocked to visit the special wooden boxcar and to view the gifts packed inside. From Cleveland, the car would  make several stops in other cities around the state, including Toledo, where Mayor Michael V. Disalle (who would later become Governor),  and a welcoming committee turned out on a cold February day at Union Station to feel the warmth of the grateful French nation.  Inside the Ohio boxcar was a collection of items that included art, wine, cheeses, toys, books, clothing, needlework , French family heirlooms, war medals, and letters from individuals who personally offered their thanks for all the Americans had done.

Merci Boxcar Now Displayed at Camp Perry

So whatever happened to that boxcar?  Well, it’s right here in Northwest Ohio,  proudly displayed at Camp Perry near Port Clinton.  In fact,  it has been at the Camp since 1950, where it was taken after the Ohio tour in 1949. The gray wooden boxcar was parked on the grounds of the military post in Ottawa County and then largely forgotten over the years.  But  in 1986, a group of local volunteers and historians,  brought the car and its meaning back to life with a restoration effort.  In November of that year, the freshly renewed piece of history was dedicated and opened to visitors at Camp Perry.   And over the past 25 years it has been restored two more times.  In 1998, after suffering tornado damage  and again in 2006, when it got a new coat of paint and a display of plaques from the various French Provinces where the train had first traveled in France.   The “voiture” is currently parked under a partial canopy, amid a larger display of other military artifacts of tanks, guns, and aircraft and is available to visitors to behold,  however, only the exterior of the boxcar.  The interior of the car is empty.  Removed of its precious payload some 60 years ago, the whereabouts of those items are mostly lost.  The Ohio State Historical Society has about a half- dozen of the items, and even they are no longer on display, but in “storage” in Columbus.  The photos of the items, however, can be viewed  on their website. They include a bust of General Lafayette, a wedding dress, a copper kettle and an antique French doll.

Value of Train Measured In Meaning, Not In Treasure

So while the proud old “voiture” boxcar that rests at Camp Perry may now be empty, its significance is not.  For those who can appreciate what this meant to the American and French alike, it is filled with memories of how the citizens themselves  of two nations can indeed forge common bonds of friendship and can reach across the ocean to make a real difference.  Drew Pearson, the newspaper columnist, would observe later that the exchanges between the two countries had prompted millions of American and French children to begin pen pal relationships, predicting that many of these young Trans-Atlantic friendships might endure for decades in the future. I wonder if they have?  But also wonder why this Valentine’s Day story is so seldom told or taught in history books of World War Two.  The  story of not how war is waged, but how peace is waged.

Other links on this story you may enjoy.

http://www.mercitrain.org/

http://www.ameshistoricalsociety.org/exhibits/events/friendship_train.htm

http://www.thefriendshiptrain1947.org/

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