Transcription, Introduction, and Comments
by Larry Pearce
After my Grandmother Bessie Reed [Hill] Pearce (1887-1974) died, most of her personal effects went to her youngest son, my Uncle Dale. It’s ironic that he was born the very year the letters we are about to discover were written, 1918. He passed away in 1981, but it was shortly after his wife Helen died in 2001 that their oldest son Ron forwarded many of Grandma’s precious memorabilia to me. In the collection were four World War I era letters written to Grandma Bessie from her younger brother Harold “Harry” Alton Hill (1891-1945). More recently I had had the great privilege of transcribing the World War I diary of my mother’s uncle Raymond Campbell in three parts. His informal writing gives a vivid glimpse into the frightening, yet sometimes amusing, life in an ammunition dump in France from shortly before until just after this great conflict. I only met that great uncle once or twice before he died in 1978 and was too young to appreciate his experiences and ask appropriate questions. On the other hand, we visited Grandma Pearce often before her death in 1974, and with my knowledge of her life and various artifacts that have survived her, I want to provide additional context as needed in presenting these four letters from the same wartime period.
Let me begin with some family background. My grandmother Bessie was the oldest of seven children produced by Joseph Marshall Hill, the son of a Civil War Captain and Surgeon’s Assistant, and Alice Virginia [Moon] Hill, whose great-great grandfather Henry Moon had apparently deserted the British to fight for the Americans in the Revolutionary War. Grandma had three brothers, the oldest of whom was Harold, or “Harry” as he was often called. I never met him as he died three years before I was born. Harry eventually took over one of the family farms, supposedly made available originally by the Commonwealth to the family because of his grandfather’s service in the Civil War. He married a local schoolteacher, Hulda Fisher (1895-1987), in 1920 after the First World War had ended. Ironically, he died at the close of the Second World War.
There must have been a certain affinity between this oldest child Bessie, a female, and her oldest brother Harry. They were only four years apart, but by the time the war started, their father was 60. Bessie had married in her early 20s a man who was 11 year older than she. His parents had both died within several days of each other at the start of the war. [See “Settlement at Pine Creek – Part II”], and by the time Harry joined the action, Bessie had four children and lots of responsibilities around the family farm. Harry was older than most recruits, 27 when he took basic training. Let’s listen in as Harry writes his first letter from Camp Forrest, Georgia, on a Sunday afternoon, September 15, 1918. It is stamped with a three cent George Washington purple stamp and postmarked “September 17, Military Branch, Chattanooga, Tennessee,” so it must have taken a few days to reach the civilian mail route in the adjacent state. Also, he addresses the letter to “Mrs. Wesley Pearce, Wexford, PA,” and the town is crossed out apparently by the local mail carrier and “Gibsonia” is substituted. That seems unusual that he wouldn’t know the post office where his sister received her mail as she had lived there for eight years, unless of course, the system had changed. I suppose he would have no reason to write to his sister as they lived only a few miles apart after she married. He adds, “Alle[gheny] Co. R.F.D. #” at the bottom of the envelope just to be sure the post office knew which end of the state Bessie lived in and what kind of mail service she was receiving. The letter is written in ink in a rather eloquent hand. I have left the spelling and grammar nearly unchanged:
It is pretty hot here this P.M. Some of the fellows are out playing ball and some are writing letters. We went up to church this morning but the chaplain failed to show up so we didn’t have any service.
I started to write this this afternoon but it got too hot so quit till this evening. Mess is over and I just came in from Mail Call but I didn’t get any although there was a whole sack full for this company. I got my first letter yesterday at noon. We get two mail a days thru the week and one on Sunday.
I have not did any work except 3 days drilling this last week but will have to go to it tomorrow for I am on for K.P. That means Kitchen Police or doing the hard and dirty work around the kitchen. There five other fellows from our barracks on for .K. P. so I will have lots of company.
Everybody has to take their turn at K.P. and if you don’t walk the chalk line you get it when it is not your turn. It takes 10 or 12 K.P.s each day. There about 265 men in the Co. I think there was nine sent home out this Co. There are about 50 men in our barracks. They almost tear the shanty down. It pretty hard to write a letter when there is so much noise.
We had a pretty good dinner today. Chicken, Mashed potatoes, gravy, Cold slaw, Peas, and Ice cream. The Chicken was a little up in years but the rest was first class.
Our Company eat 40 gal of Ice cream today. The eats are better than they were at first. Flys are almost as scarce here as hen teeth. They certainly keep things clean. I mean we do.
We have did all our drilling in the shade so far. We drill for an hour and then rest for 15 ms or play games or sing. We don’t drill on Sun. but have to stand for roll call in the morning and roll call at 5 P.M. in the eve or “Retreat” as it is called in Army. They play the Star Spangled Banner then and take down the flag. This takes about 30 minutes and I tell you I get mighty tired standing still so long.
Harry Kemp is in the same barracks as I am and Francis Hays is in the same Company.
Were you or Ralp any the worst of your squeeze. I hope he has gotten over his trouble and is alright now. I suppose Wesley registered the other day. Have you thrashed yet. I would like to attend about meal time. I suppose Walter has started to school. Has Wesley sowed any wheat yet. It is pretty dry and dusty here although it get mighty cool at night and there is always a heavy dew.
We get good wheat bread to eat but are not allowed to waste a scrap of bread or anything else. I got myself a self filling fountain pen instead of a razor. It works fine and is very handy. We got our uniforms on last Tuesday and were given a safety razor among other things. I have not tried my razor yet. Each man has his own mess kit which he has to wash and keep clean. It folds up and we keep our knife, fork, and spoon in the inside. We keep it hanging on the wall by our cots.
We have to send our clothes and suit cases home this week sometime. Tell Wesley that I have not seen John Morrison yet so we are not allowed to run around much yet.
How are you all and everything around Pearce’s Mill?
We can buy most anything here at the Canteen but it is very high. Apples 5 cents each. I haven’t bot any yet but wouldn’t mind having a couple of good one just now. Lights have to be out at ten P.M. I hope this find you all well as it leaves me. Write when you have time and if haven’t time to write, call up.
[signed] Your brother Harold A. Hill
6th Prov. Recruit Co. Camp Forrest, GA
Thus ends the first of four letters from brother Harry to sister Bessie in 1918. Several things seem worth questioning. On page three he asks about “Ralph.” My father, Ralph, would have been 18 months old then, and perhaps he is referring to an illness he had, as in “sneeze” rather than “squeeze.” This suggests that Bessie may have written earlier to tell Harry about Ralph’s condition, or Ralph could have been sick before Harry left for camp.
We always wondered about Bessie’s husband Wesley registering for the draft. He would have been in his early forties when America entered the fray . Was he required to sign up for the draft at that age? Only recently did we locate a copy of his registration dated September 1918. As a farmer with a wife and four children he certainly would have been exempt from service, but at any rate the war official ended two months later, probably before Wesley could have be conscripted.
The remark about thrashing is comical. Separating the grain from the chaff was hard, dirty work, usually done in the barn in those days at the end of the season. Harry, I’m sure was glad to be missing that experience and says, “I would like to attend about meal time.” Also, we find it hard to believe that Harry would complain about apples at five cents apiece, but that must have been a lot in those days to a farm boy who was used to picking them off the tree in the front yard.
This ends part I of our story of the wartime letters. Join us for the second letter in Part II: Influenza Strikes Harry.
Last revised 4/27/20