To Serve His Country

“…I have no pity for the dead. They have gone out, gone out with flame and song, a sudden shining glory round them spread; their drooping hands raised up again and strong; only I sorrow that a man must die to find the unending beauty of the sky.”

This quote from the poem, The Young Dead by Maxwell Struthers Burt and published in 1918 in Scribner’s Magazine, is a fitting epitaph for those who have lost their lives in the defense of family and country. This Memorial Day, we honor those who have bravely defended our country. Some live on to tell their story and others do not. To both we give our gratitude. This is the account of one of the brave men who lived to tell his story.

I really did not know my maternal grandfather at all. He lived in another state and died 3 weeks after my parents were married.  Oliver Collinsworth (O.C.) Henry, was a slight man, standing only 5’9″ tall according to his draft registration card.

Oliver Collinsworth Henry - DraftRegistration Card - 1917

The U.S. entered World War I on 16 April 1917. On 18 May 1917, the Selective Service bill was passed and less than three weeks later on 5 June 1917, the first draft registration began for men between the ages of 21-31 years of age. O.C., because of his age, was included in this draft. On his draft registration he described himself as a 21-year old single male working as a carpenter. He lived at 702 Park Street in Salina, a home which he and Gertrude would live in as newlyweds a few years later. Although he listed lung trouble as a reason for exemption to the draft, he was still ordered up for service. He arrived at Fort Riley, Kansas in September 1917 to begin his training as a soldier and was assigned Camp Funston.

B&W edited OC - WWI

 

Life was not easy for O.C. or for other soldiers. Camp rations were hardly home cooking and sleeping quarters were crowded and uncomfortable. With so many men in close quarters, sickness was commonplace. In this same camp, some six months later, an influenza epidemic would begin that would spread worldwide, killing millions.

Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas - 1918

Camp Funston, Fort Riley, Kansas – 1918

At Camp Funston, O.C. would be assigned with over 3,000 other soldiers to the 353rd Mechanized Division of the Kansas Infantry. The division bonded through their daily training and time together, but their time in relative peace soon ended. On 26 May 1918, the 353rd Division left camp in Kansas for New York on their way to France. They sailed for Europe ten days later on 4 June 1918.

War was at best difficult and at its worst deadly. By July of 1918, the United States had already lost thousands of men fighting in Europe. Soon the 353rd  would be involved with some of the most brutal fighting of the war, in the Argonne forest of France. O.C. was a runner or messenger for his unit. Messages between battalion headquarters and company and platoon positions were usually written and carried by runners. Patrols constantly kept the isolated positions in touch with one another. The patrols also ensured that the connecting stretches of trench would be kept clear of all but friends.

One day, during a particularly intense battle, shells were flying furiously, whistling around O.C. with fury. O.C. jumped into a foxhole to escape the barrage, only to startle three German soldiers. He thought his life was over when he saw them, but much to his surprise the soldiers surrendered. By the time he had brought the enemy soldiers back to camp, he was lauded as a hero. The poor soldiers were starving and only wanted to stop fighting. O.C. was awarded a medal for bravery and his service.

This scene played over and over with O.C.’s division. The unit’s historian relates the following:

“Sergeant Parli, with the third platoon of “M” Company, true to the traditions of the 353rd Infantry, was following our barrage dangerously close in the center of the battalion. Every time a German stuck his head up out of a shell hole, he faced one of Sergeant Parli’s men with a fixed bayonet and did not have a chance to fight. A great many prisoners were taken on the first hill in front of the jump-off line. Our men had seen German prisoners before and took no interest in the individual captives, but simply motioned them to the rear and pushed on for more.  The men of Germany saw grim determination in the faces of these husky Americans and held their hands high in the air. Our men took no chances for these were tense moments. The poor chap who happened to make a false move passed quietly and quickly into the next world. There was no time for questions or explanations. In a few moments more prisoners were in our midst than we had men ourselves, but Fritz knew that there were more men of the regiment coming.  So he fell in line and marched back under the command of his own officer or non-commissioned officer.”

The Meuse-Argonne Offensive was the final push for victory in World War I. The battle took place in the Verdun Sector, immediately north and northwest of the town of Verdun, between 26 September and 11 November, 1918. This would be the greatest battle of the war. The Argonne Forest was thirty-nine miles of heavily wooded deep ravines, abrupt ridges, and thick underbrush. This was a place that Julius Caesar went around and Napoleon avoided and the Americans were planning to go straight through the menacing forest. Many soldiers did not live through these battles. Some of the attacks from the enemy were by mustard gas. Many men died because of their exposure to this chemical. Those who survived suffered for the rest of their lives. O.C. had warned the army of his lung problems before his service and his exposure to this almost cost him his life. Over 26,000 Americans were lost and almost 100,000 were wounded in the two months of fighting.

The victories of the allied forces resulted in the German army’s final defeat and the signing of a peace agreement on 11 November 1945, which brought hostilities between the allies and their enemies to an end. O.C. and his division stayed for six months to help the people of France return their lives to some semblance of normalcy. On the evening of May 14th, 1910, the 353rd Infantry began the return voyage home. A grand total of 12,000 troops from the 353rd and other divisions sailed for home. O.C. and his fellow soldiers arrived in Kansas on 22 May 1919.  Gertrude and O.C. were soon reunited and within a month were married.

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Is a Life More than Just Facts?

Having researched professionally for many years, I have seen many variations of compiled family histories and narratives. Some are no more than just bare bone facts – birth, marriage, death and burial. Others present so much information that it is hard to navigate and understand. Yet others feel that history has no place in a family narrative (though, for the life of me, I cannot fathom why). A few are inspired to include the historical events that shaped their family. I ftend to relate most to the very last group.

I have always been a curious soul – wanting to understand motive and reason.  I am the strange person who reads the end of the book first and then thrills as events build up to the final act. Genealogy is like reading the end of the book first. We often have only the last events in a person’s life, their death or burial to begin our search. It is their journey through time that we follow and document.

Warren trumpet

Warren Wentz playing trumpet in the 1930s

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