The United States officially entered World War I on April 6, 1917. U.S. Navy ships reached Europe on April 9, and the first infantry troops arrived in June, when they began training for combat. By the war’s end at 11:00 a.m. Paris time on November 11, 1918, more than two million American soldiers had served and 50,000 had perished. (An exhibit at London’s Imperial War Museum interprets the moment the guns fell silent based on 1918 sound data used to triangulate the position of enemy artillery; read about the process and listen here.)
Just a few days later, on November 16, Woodrow Wilson issued Proclamation 1496, designating Thursday, November 28, 1918, as a day of thanksgiving. Although the first “Thanksgiving” is thought to have been a feast shared between the Plymouth colonists and Wampanoag people in 1621, Thanksgiving did not become a national holiday until a proclamation by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, and was not fixed on the fourth Thursday in November until 1942. The 1918 Thanksgiving holiday provided, in Wilson’s words, “special and moving cause to be grateful.” U.S. soldiers and other personnel enjoyed Thanksgiving meals and the chance to write a letter to friends and family back home.
John F. “Fred” Seiberling wrote to his mother Gertrude and father Frank, the founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company (see above right). Fred had worked at Goodyear for a short time before joining the Ohio National Guard and, in 1917, becoming a lieutenant in the U.S. Army. Seiberling was stationed in Blois, France; in his letter he remembers the previous Thanksgiving (spent at Camp Sheridan in Alabama), expresses gratitude for his family and for the end of the war, and looks forward to seeing his wife and new son.
Private Earl Gorrell wrote a postcard to his sister on November 28, 1918, thanking her for a Thanksgiving care package and sending his love to his family. Earl and his brother Joe both served in the American Expeditionary Forces’ Motor Transport Corps.
Meanwhile, “Somewhere in France,” the members of the 94th Aero Squadron, 1st Pursuit Group enjoyed a Thanksgiving dinner, music, and dancing. The squadron, commanded by Ohioan Eddie Rickenbacker, was one of the first American squadrons to reach the Western Front, where its job included taking down enemy aircraft and escorting reconnaissance and bomb squadrons over enemy territory. Rickenbacker flew more combat hours than any other American pilot and survived 134 enemy encounters; the squadron was credited with the first and last official victories of the American Air Service.
Private Ralph Roesch wrote a letter to his sister Pearl while stationed in Treviso, Italy. Roesch was part of the 332nd Infantry, which was also called the “Ohio Divison” or “Buckeye Division” because many of the soldiers were Ohioans. After training at Camp Sherman near Chillicothe, the 332nd was sent to France and then Italy, where it first saw combat in October 1918.
In his letter, Roesch talks about being reluctant to write home earlier for fear of worrying his family, but being willing to answer questions “being now it is all over with and everything is O.K.” He also talks about sleeping in barns, churches, and ditches; crossing the Piave River; and being glad he was “riding a wheel” (Roesch was a bicycle orderly) as they pursued retreating Austrian soldiers. He describes his Thanksgiving dinner and his eagerness to go home.
Wherever you are, we at Ohio Memory wish you a safe and happy holiday!
Thank you to Stephanie Michaels, Research and Catalog Services Librarian at the State Library of Ohio, for this week’s post!