Ralph’s War: The Journey, Part Two

In 1973, a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in Missouri destroyed between 16 and 18 million military records, including 80% of those for individuals discharged from the Army between 1913 and 1960.  Combining this information with the fact that none of Ralph and Bernice’s letters from 1918 and 1919 survive, I thought it was highly unlikely that I would be able to find any details about Ralph’s time in the AEF.

Luckily for me, there are far more resources available than I expected.  Men who were also aboard the Aquitania when it set sail on September 2, 1918, wrote letters home and some of these were published in their hometown newspapers.  A number of these men were also in the 334th infantry or its medical detachment, just like Ralph, and shared their experiences after disembarking from the Aquitania.  As a result, we are able to construct a rich picture of what the war must have been like for Ralph and his fellow soldiers.

Hurry Up and Wait

The strains of “Over There” mentioned in the previous post must only have lasted so long.  Boarding the ship and waiting for it to embark seems to have been a rather tedious, and much longer than anticipated, process.  The man who wrote the letter below had spent two days and nights aboard a troop ship preparing to embark when the peace was declared:

boarding the ship
Fort Wayne Sentinel, 17 Sep 1918


Aboard the Aquitania

As the Aquitania finally pulled away from the docks, the regimental band played on the deck of the ship.  As many men as possible would likely have crowded onto the deck to catch a last glimpse of their native land.  Leaving from New York City, their last sights would have been the skyscrapers of Lower Manhattan’s financial district with Jersey City on the other side, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty.  They would have sailed past Staten Island and Sandy Hook and out into the open Atlantic.

Next, the men headed below deck for their supper.  The same cooks who had been with the regiment at Camp Sherman travelled with them aboard the ship.  Incredible organization and timing would have been required to serve meals to several thousand men.  As we saw in the video of the systems in place at Camp Sherman, the cooks’ skills were well-honed.

aquitania second class dining upper deck
Second Class Dining Saloon, 1914–Source:  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20615.html



third class dining saloon
Third Class Dining Saloon, 1914–Source:  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20567.html


Following dinner, the musicians returned to the deck to play for the officers before retiring for bed.  The enlisted men were offered the option of a picture show in the mess hall, but they couldn’t get the machine working, so the evening was spent in singing instead.

For the first three hours of the journey, the ship was accompanied by a convoy of destroyers and hydroplanes.  Afterward she was left to her own devices.  With her complement of six 6-inch guns and her considerable speed, she was thought to be capable of outrunning any attacker.

The accommodations aboard the Aquitania seem to have varied greatly, depending on where in the ship each man was placed.  Photos of suites and first, second and third class staterooms follow.  There was also a steerage class area, though I was unable to find any pictures of it.  Presumably, it would have been similar to that described in the letter at the start of this post: small and crowded, with large numbers of men possibly sleeping in hammocks hung from hooks.


rembrandt suite
Rembrandt Suite, 1914 — Source: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20553.html



first class stateroom
First Class Stateroom, 1914 — Source:  http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20552.html



second class stateroom
Second Class Stateroom, 1914 — Source: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20585.html



third class cabin
Third Class Cabin, 1914 — Source: http://collections.rmg.co.uk/collections/objects/20558.html


The passengers aboard the Aquitania on this trip were lucky in that the seas were calm for much of the journey.  Unfortunately, this didn’t preclude the men from suffering seasickness.


The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), 30 Oct 1918


Of course, not everyone felt the same way.


big waves
The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), 15 Oct 1918


The regimental band continued to provide entertainment throughout the journey, performing minstrel shows and various concerts.  The typical minstrel show consisted of dancing, singing, a “stump speech”–the forerunner of modern stand-up comedy, and humorous skits.  For much of its early history, minstrel shows often involved white men in blackface and much racist content.  By this time, however, the popularity of such performance was on the wane.  Many groups instead attempted to adopt an air of refinement and differed from other mainstream entertainments only in name.

Some confusion may have resulted from the change in time as the ship progressed on its journey.  As the ship crossed into different time zones, the ship’s time was changed but of course, the men’s watches had to be reset each morning.  They likely stayed on a set schedule, resulting in a feeling that I can only imagine was like that of daylight savings time, over and over again.  Perhaps this gradual change saved them from the kind of modern-day jetlag one experiencing when flying overseas.


time change
The Call-Leader (Elwood, IN), 15 Oct 1918

The last night of the journey, the men were told that they were now entering the danger zone.  Each man had to sleep fully dressed and wearing his life belt in case of attack.

At 10 a.m. on September 9th, the Aquitania came into sight of the white chalk cliffs of southern England.  An English convoy met the ship and escorted it into port at Southampton.  The men stayed aboard the ship until September 11th when they were loaded into smaller ships and ferried across the English Channel under cover of darkness.  Later ships carrying portions of the 84th Division were diverted to Scotland and rode trains to Winchester, England.

english channel

The trip across the Channel was probably the most treacherous portion of the entire journey.  The men were warned against even lighting a match, in case it attracted the attention of a German submarine.  However, the men arrived safely at Le Havre on a wet, dreary day in mid-September.  They were finally in France.

le havre

le havre location
Location of the above photograph with respect to the port

Next Time:  The Yanks Are Coming


Ralph’s War: The Journey, Part One

The long train journey to Camp Mills, Long Island, is well-described in many letters home.  A number of these men had probably never been so far from home and their descriptions of the amazing sights they encountered reflect this fact.  Imagine the wonder of seeing Niagara Falls for the first time in your life!  Another event commonly mentioned is the presence of the Red Cross at every major stop along the way.  The men were supplied with free postcards and presented with treats of all sorts: lemonade, fruit, homemade cakes.  The food must have been particularly appreciated as nearly everyone lists the various items they were offered.


red cross canteen
Source: Red Cross of Central PA Twitter account


More wonder awaited the men as they approached Camp Mills.

statue of liberty
Angola Herald, 4 Oct 1918



liberty at night.jpg
Edward Vincent Brewer (1883-1971)|Lady Liberty at Night, c. 1907|Cover illustration for Life Magazine (January 23, 1908)

How the sight must have stirred every man capable of patriotic feeling!  They were soldiers now and here they were, seeing what it was they were fighting to protect!

If that wasn’t exciting enough, the men were able to explore the city during their free time, taking in the sights, dancing and seeing shows.

Fort Scott Daily Tribune and Daily Monitor, 29 Apr 1918


coney island
Fort Scott Daily Tribune and Daily Monitor, 6 Aug 1918


The cantonment itself was more of a disappointment.  At the time at which the 84th was stationed at Camp Mills, the men were expected to stay in tents as permanent barracks had not yet been constructed.  One letter described the tents as having no floor, which was particularly miserable when it rained and the ground turned to mud.


camp mills tents
From IAGenWeb, contributed by Bill Reiley

Camp Mills was located directly beside the Hazelhurst Aviation Fields, so frequently the men would see large numbers of airplanes flying in battle formation.  In fact, on the 14th of October, 1918, one man was killed and several wounded during training when they were accidentally strafed by machine gun fire from a plane.


men killed by airplane
The Wilkes-Barre Record, 15 Oct 1918


Units from the camp left on a regular basis, creating quite the scene as they queued up to be transferred to the ports of embarkation in New York City and Hoboken:


blue centipede
The Evening World, 17 Sep 1918


According to Percy Smallwood, the YMCA’s physical director at Camp Mills, the men often left in high spirits, ready to do their part “Over There”:


singing at embarkation
Pittsburgh Daily Post, 25 Aug 1918


The 334th infantry departed from New York harbor on September 2, 1918, aboard the Aquitania.  The Aquitania was a Cunard Line ocean liner that had been designated as a hospital ship and later for troop transport.  Its distinctive dazzle paint was used to prevent attack by making it difficult to estimate a target’s heading, speed and range.


Aquitania as troop ship with dazzle paint
Aquitania with dazzle paint (Source: Wikipedia article, “HMT Aquitania”)




With the benefit of time, we are able to see these passenger records and know which ship Ralph sailed on.  At the time, however, this would have been a highly sensitive matter.  Ralph would not have been allowed to tell his family, including his wife, Bernice, when he was leaving or what ship he would board.  As a result, the following information must have absolutely terrified Bernice and the rest of the family when it reached Findlay:

The men involved in the sinking of the Persic were, in fact, part of the 84th Division.  Thankfully, Ralph was not one of them, but the family would wait for weeks before they knew this.

Next Time:  The Journey, Part Two


Ralph’s War: Camp Sherman

National Park Service (https://www.nps.gov/hocu/learn/historyculture/camp-sherman.htm)


Chillicothe, Ohio, had been a site for housing troops during both the War of 1812 and the Civil War, making it a natural choice for the same purpose in 1917.  Despite the initial reservations of the local population, the government constructed a facility capable of handling upwards of 40,000 soldiers just outside the city.  Camp Sherman would be its name.

Chillicothe Gazette, 14 Jun 1917

Just before Ralph Benington’s entry into the service, Ohio Governor, James M. Cox, began a campaign to have all Ohio draftees sent to Camp Sherman to train.  Not only would the men be closer to their families and friends during training, but a significant amount of money could be saved on providing transportation.  According to an article in the Chillicothe Gazette of 23 May 1918, the governor stated that the cost of transportation in a single upcoming week during which 20,000 Ohioans were sent to out-of-state training camps would approach $100,000.  Whether it was due to this political pressure or not, Ralph was sent to Camp Sherman, approximately 130 miles from his hometown of Findlay, Ohio.

Chillicothe Gazette, 23 May 1918

Upon arrival at Camp Sherman, Ralph and his fellow draftees would have been checked in by an officer and assigned a bunk.  They would have undergone another physical examination.  According to his records, Ralph was inoculated against typhoid and paratyphoid on July 13, 1918.  It is possible that this was the day he arrived at camp for the first time.

The video that follows shows many details of in-processing, aspects of camp life and the general training regime at Camp Sherman.  See the end of the post for a detailed listing of the events in the video and the times at which they occur if you don’t wish to watch the entire hour.

16 weeks training

Early in his stay at Camp Sherman, Ralph was a private in the 158th Depot Brigade.  It was very common for soldiers to be placed in a depot brigade while waiting for an assignment to a unit headed overseas.  However, that was all soon to change with the arrival of the 84th Division, previously based at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky.


arrival of 84th
Chillicothe Gazette, 28 May 1918


On the 22nd of July, Ralph was transferred to his new unit, Company H of the 334th Infantry, 84th Division.  The 84th was known as the Lincoln Division, based on the tradition that its origin was with the Illinois militia company in which the young Abraham Lincoln served during the Black Hawk War in 1832.


84th division
Shoulder insignia of the 84th Division


In case military drills were not strenuous enough, a significant heat wave hit Chillicothe during the summer of 1918.  On August 7th, the temperature on the parade grounds reached 118 degrees and over 150 men were taken to the hospital with heat prostration.  Two of the men died by the next day.  Officers decided to call a halt to drills until the weather became more reasonable; however, an order came from division headquarters requiring that the normal schedule was resumed.

By mid-August, rumors that the 84th would be headed overseas were running rampant.


to europe
The Los Angeles Times, 12 Aug 1918



rumors 1
Daily Republican (Rushville, IN), 17 Aug 1918



through marion
The Marion Star, 20 Aug 1918


Given this final article, one wonders whether the train would have passed through Findlay as well.  Did Ralph send out a hurried telegram to his wife, his parents?  Was there a tearful farewell on a train platform?  One way or another, Ralph was on his way to France.

Next time:  The Journey, Part One


Content of “Training Activities of the 83rd Division”

1:17  Camp Sherman receiving station
1:29  officer receives men as they arrive
1:45  Division Headquarters and intro to several officers
3:34  men arriving
3:56  assigned to quarters
4:10  medical re-examination and inoculation
7:11  learning to salute
7:24  learning right about face
7:53  calisthenics
8:35  given bunks and uniforms
9:30  skirmishes
10:00  two hours of vigorous play each day
11:10  quartermaster’s department
11:33  payroll
11:52  trucks
12:26  systems for providing meals
12:59  mini railway for moving supplies
13:46  mixing bread dough and baking bread
15:33  refrigeration plant
16:55  “department of eats”
18:47  laundry
19:50  construction of camp roads
20:36  signal practice
20:55  camp hospital
24:30  “most modern war machine”–airplane
25:23  “child of British tank”
25:55  telephone exchange
26:05  mail delivery and personnel office
29:09  fire department
29:38  remount station
29:50  boxing
30:19  instruction by experienced British soldiers
31:17  bayonet instruction including obstacle course
33:28  field artillery practice
34:30  Chauchat machine gun
35:26  drilling with Enfield rifles and throwing grenades
36:48  trench mortars
38:00  “over the top”
38:25  gas masks–gas training with and without masks
40:00  introduction to commanding officers of 83rd Division
40:20  review of 83rd Division–40,000 men
41:55  construction of trenches (This section is particularly fascinating; shocking the amount of work that went into building a trench)
46:41  field kitchen and mess time
48:59  squads alternate with rest periods
50:04  separate YMCA for each regiment
50:56  Jewish Welfare Society
51:40  Knights of Columbus
52:54  Masonic House
53:10  Red Cross Community House–for visiting with friends and family
55:00  silent drill
56:30  black soldiers
57:40  long marches
58:04  entertainment in barracks
58:46  showers
58:51  taps

Ralph’s War: How it Began


Ralph Benington, age 30, and his wife, Bernice, age 20, were married May 29, 1918, by the Rev. A. A. Hundley, pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church, Findlay, Ohio.  Little did the two suspect that they would have less than a month to settle into married life before fate would intervene.

Slightly less than a year previously, Ralph had been involved in the first national registration day following the passage of the Selective Service Act.  Upon the United States’ entry into World War I, President Wilson had asked that the Army be increased from its current size of about 121,000 to one million soldiers.  Six weeks later, only 73,000 men had volunteered for service.  The Selective Service Act, enacted May 18, 1917, required that all men between the ages of 21 and 30 register for military service.  On June 5, 1917, all men 21-31 had to report to a centralized location within their communities in order to fill out a draft card.


The following is the front of Ralph’s draft card:

ralphs draft card

The drawing of numbers began on the morning of July 20, 1917.  Each number was written on black-backed paper and enclosed in a gelatin capsule.  Secretary of War, Newton Baker, selected the first capsule, which contained the number 258.  All individuals in all districts who were given the number 258 would be required to report for service.  Ultimately, it would take about 18 hours to draw the 10,500 numbers required to meet the government’s quota.

Draft numbers were often published in the local newspaper, much like in this article from the Akron Beacon Journal the night of the first draft:

drafted names

In addition, a draft notice was sent to the home of the new recruit.  The following example was found in the digital collection of East Carolina University:

draft notice

The back of the notice listed the penalties for failing to appear at the Local Board when summoned to do so.

Ralph’s discharge paperwork indicates that he was inducted into the military on June 27, 1918.  If the previous draft notice is anything to go by, it appears that draftees were given about a week from the mailing of their draft notice to their date of induction into service.

While I do not know for certain that Ralph was drafted rather than volunteering for service, it seems rather unlikely that a newlywed would choose to leave his wife less than a month after their marriage.  Ralph had had plenty of time to volunteer prior to this date.  Do these look like people who couldn’t wait to get away from one another?

ralph and bernie

It would be possible to discover, without a doubt, whether Ralph had been drafted into service.  Each Local Board maintained lists of the men selected, including information on the date they were ordered to report, the mobilization camp to which they were sent and certification from officials at the camp as to whether the man had appeared as required.  These records are now held at the Field Archives branches in the appropriate regions.

Currently, what we know is that Ralph and Bernice were about to be separated for the first time in their very short married lives.  It is easy to imagine how upset they both must have felt, faced with this prospect.

Next time:  Camp Sherman