While browsing through some family genealogical materials this week, I found a letter. I don’t know who it is to. It’s from a musician in an Army band, named Emery Edward King, dated December 12, 1918, from Chauffourt in France. It’s on stationery with a printed American YMCA letterhead, lined, about 4 by 6 inches and could be folded, I would guess to fit a small envelope so as to save space in shipping. The letter would have crossed the Atlantic the same way Emery did, by ship.The paper has faded a bit. [All spellings and punctuation are as in the original].
ON ACTIVE SERVICE
AMERICAN EXPEDITIONARY FORCE
I received your letter some time ago, an sure was surprised, also was glad for it, I am getting along alright, and hope this will find you folks the same. I have been in the Band since the first of Aug, an I consider my self lucky in getting into the band, because if I hadn’t got in there, I would of had to shoulder a gun and went after Fritz. The band didn’t have to go to the lines but we were close enough to receive the high explosive, and schrapnel shells, some of them hit pretty close, they made it real interesting for us at times. We stayed at Verdun seventeen days, an the Germans shelled the town every day an night that we were there atnight they would come over in airplanes an spray the roads with machine gun fire an drop bombs. We hiked from Verdun here it took us eleven days to make the hike. Don’t know if we will go to Germany or not, some of the outfits are going over. I hope we will move from here soon either go to Germany, or home, there is nothing doing at this place at all. this is about all I can think about now so will close hoping to hear from you soon. tell Uncle I said hello. Your Nep,
Mus Emery E King
Band 108 US Inf
A moment’s fantasy. What of all the soldiers were members of a band? With tubas for heavy artillery and trumpets for guns, clanging out the likes of Stars and Stripes Forever while other bands crank out their anthems, and the folks invaded by bands judge the winner by applause meter.
I did some searching and the only name I can find in records that fits is an Emery Edward King from Clark County, Ohio, born November 20, 1891. His draft card registration detail is on line, as is the Registrar’s report—and the signature on the registration record matches the one on the letter. He was single, worked as a railroad laborer, was tall and of medium build, with dark brown hair and eyes (detail from the registrar’s report). He registered June 5, 1917. There’s not much more detail. It seems odd that he was single at age 26. There’s nothing else, but we can assume he had to have some musical skills to get into the regimental band.
Emery King was in the war to end all wars. He was a toddler when the Army massacred Lakota at Wounded Knee. He’d have been in grade school when we had a splendid little war with Spain. He’d have grown into high school, if he went to high school, while we fought the stubborn resistance in the Philippines (losing more soldiers than in the war with Spain and killing maybe a hundred thousand Filipinos). In his small town Ohio he’d have known, or at least known of, aging veterans from the Civil War. If he read newspapers (likely from nearby Dayton or Springfield) he’d have read of the Army’s expedition into Mexico after Pancho Villa under General Blackjack Pershing—who later commanded the AEF in France.
Reading this letter from a soldier from a century ago got me to thinking about a new war on the horizon in Syria. King’s war in France was a century ago, and that savage war ended a month before Emery wrote this letter. The Armistice was on November 11, a week before Emery’s birthday–what a birthday gift that must have been! I don’t know what happened the rest of his life. He’d have lived through a world during the flu pandemic of 1918-1919 that killed far more people than the war did.
Since then, American soldiers have sent letters home from places and from future wars he never dreamed of. If he survived to a ripe age of 80, lasting until 1971, Emery’s lifetime would have seen soldiers and sailors writing home from World War 2. From Korea and Vietnam. From soldiers stationed in places the United States occupied, such as Haiti and the Dominican Republic. From the Marines stationed in China between the world wars. From soldiers fighting the rebels in Nicaragua. From soldiers with the troops intervening at Vladovostok during the Russian Civil War. From soldiers occupying Japan and Germany. From troops stationed in the Canal Zone and the Philippines.
His time on France was probably the most exciting portion of Emery’s life. But he was lucky getting into the band so he didn’t have to go after Fritz. Fritz’s shelling and airplanes machine gunning and schrapnel meant more than the slight touch of bravado in Emery’s letter: it meant that a lot of American soldiers came home dead.
The best way for American soldiers to not come home dead is to not send them there in the first place.