Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Leland R. Gilbert
Mr. Gilbert's letter contains many vivid pen pictures from "over there" in edition to several humorous incidents of the trip across the ocean that make it well worth reading.
Somewhere in France, May 13, '18.
Mr. John S. Dellinger,
Astoria, Oregon, U.S.A.
Dear Mr. Dellinger:
While I'm writing letters home tonight, will include one to you, for it occurs to me that you are about due for one --- or perhaps a bit overdue. But I've covered several thousand miles since my last letter to you and was on board ship or train which kept me traveling almost continually before I finally reached my battery.
My trip across the Atlantic was both interesting and enjoyable to me, despite very rough weather during the fore part of the voyage which made nearly all the boys aboard our transport hug the rails. No, they were not looking at the scenery.
We sailed from a large Atlantic Coast Port, getting away from the docks soon after 5:00 o'clock in the evening. A light rain was falling as we boarded the transport, which was to take us to France, and we Oregonians --- Astorians especially --- felt right at home. We were not allowed to remain on the decks while the big vessel, which in peace times annually transported thousands of American tourists to Europe, was passing down the harbor.
Thus it came about that my last view of anything on that side of the Atlantic was obtained through a port hole just as darkness was falling. It was the world-famous Statue of Liberty --- What a significant thing that statue is now --- "Liberty Enlightening the world!" Could anything be more true?
As we passed the statue, Miss Liberty's form with uplifted arm was silhouetted clearly against the laden sky. You should have heard the fellows shout and sing as we passed the statue. "Goodbye Old Girl --- We're Coming Back," shouted one. "We Will Bring You Another Wreath," said another. Thus it went.
Then the boys began to sing "Goodbye Broadway, Hello France", "We're Going Over", "Over There", "It's a Long Way to Berlin" and other popular songs born since the war began. It was late that first night at sea before the boys quit telling what they were going to do to the Kaiser and went to bed. But there were but few who slept that night, for the ship was rolling in the trough of heavy sea and you can easily guess what most of the Sammies were doing most of the time, especially those from inland states who had never seen an ocean, much less traveled on one. The first night's scenes were often repeated before we sighted land again.
We had one fellow in the part of the ship where I slept --- a big Norwegian from the lumber camps of Northern Wisconsin --- whose name was Ole Nelson [no not the Clatsop County Constable]. He was addressing a crowd of us one night at mess time, telling of his days before the mast. He was standing up, holding his mess kit full of "corned Willie stew" in his left hand, while his right grasped firmly a smoked and dried species of fish, resembling much the black bass of Oregon lakes. Just as a spoonful of the C. W. S. was about to disappear in his mouth, the ship hit an angle of about 45 degrees and Nelson suddenly vanished underneath a row of canvas bunks, which hung just above the floor. He struck the floor on his stomach and slid thereon the full length of the room. When he emerged a few seconds later, Nelson was a sight. Beef stew trickled down his face and the front of his uniform, while the fish which he still clutched in his hand, was hopelessly mutilated and looked more like a fine-toothed comb, for all that was left was the back-bone. It was some minutes before the laughter subsided.
This was but one of many amusing experiences for the boys before all got their "sea legs."
I witnessed my first sea burial while crossing the Atlantic, when a young man from Kansas and in the same overseas company as I, died from pneumonia. He was a fine fellow and popular with us all. Nearly everybody aboard ship was present on the deck next morning at 4 o'clock when the casket was lowered over the side of the ship.
For a sea burial, the young man was given even a better funeral service than ordinarily under similar circumstances, I was told. One of the Catholic priests aboard ship officiated at a brief service on deck. Then the casket, which was covered entirely by a large American flag, was lowered over the side of the vessel. One of the buglers played "Taps" during this part of the ceremony, muffling the tone of his bugle with a book, for at this time we were passing through the danger zone where submarines were supposed to abide, making it necessary to take every precaution for our safety. I might add that we never so much as sighted a submarine during our entire voyage. Then we came across without a convoy, which made the trip more thrilling than ever.
When we were still five or six hours from the port where we debarked, a large French dirigible balloon --- the "A. T.-4" came out and accompanied us into the harbor, flying just over our vessel. There were eight or ten passengers in the car. Two French aeroplanes also, circled around us as we approached the mainland.
Our first look at France, to me was nearly the same as one gets on entering the Columbia River, except where McKenzie Head is located at home, it was a long and very low chain of barren sandhills. We were finally picked up by a French tug --- the "Titan" --- and towed into the harbor, passing some truly beautiful country before we made fast to the docks. The view was exceptionally fine, for it was early evening and the green fields looked most Oregon-like. Beautiful chateaus with their red tiled roofs offered a most pleasing contrast to the green fields and sombre woods in the background. As we neared our dock the French people waved greetings to us from the shore and others from the windows of their homes. A large crowd of people were at the dock and our reception was, indeed, a cordial one. Scores of American soldiers who formed part of the very first of the American Expeditionary Force to arrive here last summer, joined in giving us a welcome to France.
I learned from an American soldier on the dock where we berthed that he was from Oregon. When I made inquiries about Chaplain W.S. Gilbert, the Sammie promptly told me that the popular Astoria man was right there in that very city and was in good health and happy. Also a very busy man looking after his proteges in the Oregon regiment. Would have gone out to see the Major, but we were not allowed to leave our ship that night, and next morning early we departed from that city and I have not seen my friend yet. So near and yet so far.
Many of my friends in various organizations were located either in that city or the country adjacent and it was disappointing to be compelled to leave without seeing them, for now I am hundreds of miles away from them. J.R. Hinman, former city editor of the Morning Astorian, was among those I wanted to visit back there. Then there are Tom and Ed Willikson, Marston Hussong, John Anderson, Erickson, Max Riley, Fred Keating, Gearhart Larsen, and other Astoria boys that are over here whom I got close to but never saw. The organizations to which they belong are in various parts of France and I am told are being kept busy with the boys in good health. Was sorry I did not get to see the Astorians and give them some home news direct, for the Oregon fellows that I did meet were all eager to know about their home towns and their friends and relatives. This information I gladly gave them when possible.
Before reaching my own organization which is Battery A of the 147th Field Artillery, I traveled over quite a good-sized and interesting section of France. On two occasions while on my way through the country we were billeted in the hay-lofts and stalls of barns, and on another occasion I slept in an abandoned brick kiln, which was constructed of stone and looked as if it might have been built during the period when Napoleon lived. But experiences of this kind were enjoyed and taken as one incident of our service "over here." American soldiers can quickly adjust themselves to any circumstances, I find.
My battery is composed principally of Oregon men, the majority of whom are Portlanders, though there are also a number of Washington and California men, too. All are splendid fellows, while the officers are efficient ones and popular with the command. Battery A was the oldest field Artillery organization on the Pacific Coast and has made an enviable record during its life time, winning in days gone by the sobriquet --- "The Invincible A." We are seeing some interesting service over here, but will have to forgo giving you any military information just now --- as much as I would like to, for there are many things which would interest you home folks, were I allowed to tell you.
Personally, I never felt better than at present. Am getting as brown as a nut from sun and wind, and have gained in weight with it all. This is true of nearly all the soldiers I've been associated with in France.
France is a picturesque and beautiful country, and I might say quaint to we Americans, while the people, from the peasants to the more refined classes, are hospitable and very cordial to us where ever we go. Having at odd moments, since last summer, studied the French language I can now "Parlez Vous Francais" fairly well and have never failed to at least, make my wants known to the native and to get some of what they say to me.
Was pleasantly surprised recently, when I met Lieut. Alexander G. Barry of Astoria, on the streets of the city where my battery is quartered. He is a son of Mrs. Margaret Barry, one of Astoria's former prominent educators, now of Portland. You will no doubt recall that he was commissioned a First Lieutenant of Field Artillery, at the second officers' training camp at the Presidio. He is popular with his fellows and is making good as an officer. Since our visit he has been ordered to another section and I don't know whether I'll see him again or not. We had an enjoyable visit here.
While gazing in a shop window in a French town recently, was surprised to see a pyramid of cans of Holly Brand condensed milk, put up at Amity, Yamhill County, Ore. Have also seen canned Columbia River salmon in windows of some of the delicatessen shops. So you see the world is not so large after all.
The men of Battery A were over-joyed recently, when over 300 American horses, for the use of our organization arrived from home. We had been using French horses which are about the most peculiar nags that ever I've seen. The French horse does not know what reins are for, having been led all his life. If you say "gid dap" it does not comprenez. The American language doesn't go. One has to speak to it in French --- squeak like a mouse in fact. Thus "get up" is "eek! eek!"
We are camped near a large and pretty French town, which is prominent for its pretty chateaux, flower and vegetable gardens, and great vineyards. Viniculture appears to be the main agricultural pursuit with the French and large and well kept vineyards and wineries are seen every where. Plenty of fine wine over here.
Houses and business buildings are all constructed of blocks of a kind of soft but durable stone, peculiar to France, and therefore all of the narrow, stone-paved and irregular streets have a smilarity of appearance. Stone walls are seen everywhere, both in city and town. Beautiful and stately shade trees and wonderfully constructed roads are among the commendable things seen in France. The French are a most artistic people, as evidenced by the wonderful gardens and plazas and the architecture of their chateaux and bridges, etc. The weather is very much like that of Oregon, about fifty-fifty on rain and sunshine.
"Jim Curry's Jitney" has it on the French trains, both for speed and looks. Passenger trains are divided into first, second and third class compartments, each holding about eight people. One enters the compartment from the station platform through side doors. An athletic American soldier can outrun one of these trains over here.
The freight cars are cute little things, which wouldn't make good on the Kerry logging road over in Columbia county, for they are too small; you can get a good idea of their size when I tell you that instead of using an engine for switching purposes, an old man and a block is all that is necessary for the work.
We get the Paris and London newspapers regularly, including Le Matin, Petit Parisian, and L. Echo from Paris and the Daily Mail from London. The Chicago Tribune and New York Herald also publish special army newspapers at Paris, printed in English for our special benefit. Then we have the weekly Stars and Stripes, the official publication of the American Expeditionary Force. Thus we keep abreast of the times in America, in Europe and at the immediate front.
The Morning Astorian reaches me in bunches and I enjoy reading the home news very much. We also get the Oregonian over here. I hope you keep up handing in the Clatsop County news to "The Soldiers New Letter" published in Portland, for we all get copies of that paper regularly.
Private Leland R. Gilbert,
Battery A, 147th Field Artillery, American
Expeditionary Forces, U.S.A. P.O. 718.