One family’s connection to world wars
For one area woman, keepsake letters brought joy and worry
Memorial Day (first known as Decoration Day) is almost upon us. Beginning after the Civil War, those who died during that conflict in the Union were honored. (The South honored Confederate dead on a different day but also decorated the graves of their soldiers.) After World War I, the day was used to honor those who died during their service in the United States military during any of its wars. Since the Centennial of World War I is being celebrated from 2014-2018, the information Mary Ann (Karcher) Nordstrom brought to the OBSERVER office is doubly appropriate.
Mrs. Nordstrom, now a resident of Van Buren Point, has original letters written by her father and her uncle during their service in France from about May 1918 through February 1919 during World War I. Indeed, the brothers landed in France on Memorial Day.
She said, “These letters were written by my dad and his brother. They enlisted in World War I together in the ‘buddy program.’ John was my dad. He returned after the war. Ambrose, my uncle, was killed by ‘friendly fire.’ My cousin, Richard J. Schrader, a professor of English at Boston College, did a tracing of the family and edited the letters.”
The two young men who served came from a family of 15 children. Most of the letters in the collection were written to their older sister, Marie (Karcher) Schmader in Canton, Ohio. Others were written to Marie’s daughter, Evalyn. Short cards went to their dad, John M. Karcher, and their mother, Christina Barbara Karcher. In the letters, both brothers mention others to whom they have written. All letters were censored. Most were written on YMCA stationery; two were written on Knights of Columbus stationery.
The brothers went overseas to France on the same transport ship. Both wrote to Marie that the trip was fine. John wrote in a joking manner, “I had a fine trip, lots of big fish and lots of waves. I felt fine all the way over, all but one day, and believe me I sure did feed the fish that day.”
Ambrose’s first letter to Marie was probably lost. He described the trip again on July 19, 1918. “Well, Marie, as I have already said in the other letter, I enjoyed the trip across very well, excepting I was sick for a couple of days, but afterwards I felt fine, so I am none the worse for the experience. At times I thought we would never see land, for the trip seemed so long. No I cannot say much about the trip, as they are very strict on what we put in a letter, so you will have to wait until we get back home again, and then I will be able to tell you a long story.”
On July 21, 1918, in answer to his sister’s question about (German) subs (also known as U-boats), John wrote, “Yes, we have all landed safe over here, and I hope to tell you we sure had an interesting trip, in fact a very exciting one. You want to know if we saw any subs. Well, I hope to tell you we did and plenty of them from the time we left American waters till we pulled in dock in France. One day there was 8 subs around us at one time, just as thick as flies, but none of them got a chance to fire on us, we were so well protected by our Navy. And our gunners sank 4 on our trip. Not so bad, eh? I saw one of them that was hit from a gun on the boat I was riding on, and when the shell hit him he rose out of the water, turned on one side, and went to his watery grave forever, and we stood there and laughed at him. That was great sport, watching them shoot at subs. And the gunners on our boat was praying for them to come up. They were the best gunners in Uncle Sam’s Navy. The only trouble was, us fellows were a little too nebby.
(Reporter’s note: nebby means nosy. This word is used in the Pittsburgh area, and in Northern England. The Karchers lived in Etna, Pennsylvania which is near Pittsburgh. Another interesting word that shows up in the letters is youns, which is meant as a plural of you, much like the youse guys in New Jersey or the Southern Y’all. According to Mrs. Nordstrom, it is still used.)
Whenever, a sub came up, we would push the sailors out of our way so we could see the subs and see where the shells hit. We could always see the shell hit the water before we could hear the report from the gun. We pulled in here on Memorial Day and that was the day of real excitement. They were shooting from morning to night.”
The brothers were a part of Company A, 319th Infantry. John was a private who became a corporal before leaving France. Ambrose was a sergeant. According to their letters, the soldiers received some training in France. Both described visits to the trenches as part of the training.
In his letter of Aug. 14, 1918 Ambrose wrote to Marie, “Well, you have asked if I have been to the trenches, so I may as well tell you. I have been up twice to the front lines, the first time for two days and the second for 4 days, and while there I seen enough to make me feel very well satisfied if they keep me in training until the war ends. They took us up to give us an idea of how things are run in the trenches. It was quite interesting, I’ll admit, and I learnt a great deal. I am not sorry that I took the trips there. Well, the roar of the artillery was as if it were thundering all the time, and at times the sky was illuminated with the flash of guns. It was a great sight indeed. We could hear the shells go screeching through the air, and it sounded as if a trolley car was approaching. … Now, I do not want you to tell Mother of me being to the front as it makes her worry a great deal.”
John, in his letter of Aug. 16, 1918 wrote to Marie, “Well, Marie, we are still in training but I have been to the front a couple of times, and believe me it makes a fellow a little nervous the first time when the big shells bust all around you, and they make a fellow duck his head, but you soon get used to that. You can tell where the shells are going to hit.”
Ambrose’s last letter to Marie, dated Sept. 21, 1918 was short. In it he wrote that he had spoken to John, expected the war not to last “many more months” and that he hoped to be home by next spring “if I am lucky enough to pull through this thing, which I feel I will.” Ambrose died Sept. 28, 1918 of wounds received two days before during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. He was buried in Nixeville, which is southwest of Verdun near the Aire River and the Argonne Forest in Canton de Souilly, France. In 1921, his body, as well as those of three other area soldiers, was returned to Pennsylvania for burial. Schrader, who edited the letters for his family, noted information from a clipping of Aug. 1, 1921. The four men, boyhood friends who served in the same division and died in the same battle, were buried with full military honors. It described the funeral as the largest held in these boroughs. Schrader also noted that he appealed to the Dept. of the Army in 1984 and was able to get a purple heart awarded to Ambrose.
John describes Ambrose’s death in three letters: Oct. 16, 1918, Dec. 3, 1918, and Dec. 11, 1918. In the first he wrote that Ambrose was 50 yards away from him; in the second he put the distance at 100 yards. As a response to some of Marie’s questions, he gave more details of the battle in the last letter.
In it he wrote, “No, I did not see Ambrose after he was wounded, not once. All I heard was that a piece of shrapnel hit his cartridge belt and his shells exploded and wounded him. His lieutenant told me he started to walk back to a dressing station, but he was soon picked up by stretcher bearers and carried back. I don’t know what hospital he was in. I never heard. He was wounded in the drive on the Meuse River, near Verdun, starting from the once-famous Dead Man’s Hill, if you remember it, where the French and the Germans battled for four years and never got anywhere. But we took them somewhere; we chased them 9 ¢ kilos in a few hours’ time, and the next two drives I was in was in the Argonne Forests. We gave them some chase there, worse than the first time, and that’s where I was when the Armistice was signed. Our division was relieved, just two days before it was signed, from the firing line. We had been driving for 17 days, and that was plenty for us. The 80th division, that is ours, has made a great name for itself both in France and the States. We fought beside Uncle Sam’s best, the Marines, and we beat Germany’s best, the Prussian Guards.”
According to Schrader, what John didn’t tell his sister is that he himself was affected by gas. Schrader also noted that John did not get a disability payment for this until 1950 because of poor records and the fact that many of the division had been killed.
Even though the Armistice with Germany, which essentially ended the war, was signed on Nov. 11, 1918, John’s letters continue through Feb. 22, 1919. In a letter to his mother on Dec. 1, 1918, he writes that “we were on a long hike. Yes we walked for 13 days, and believe me that was some walk.” He tells Marie in a letter of Dec. 3 the hike was from Sommauthe to Cruzy-Le-Chatel. Schrader notes that the distance is about 120 miles.
John’s last letter is to Marie and is written from Cruzy-Le-Chatel on Feb. 22, 1919. He tells Marie he had “a light attack of the flu.” In previous letters John had apparently been responding to Marie and her daughter’s description of the flu (aka the grippe). Indeed in 1918-1919, an influenza pandemic killed more people than World War I. This flu strain was so deadly because it not only killed the very old and very young, but also the healthy individuals in between.
John returned to Etna, Pennsylvania. He married Anna Istenes on June 29, 1920. Mary Ann (Karcher) Nordstrom is the youngest of their six children. She said, “Four of my brothers served in the military in World War II: John in the Marines; Norbert in the Army Air Corps (which became the Air Force), Donald in the Army and Ted in the Navy. Jim, who was the youngest boy, served in the Korean War.”
It is Norbert, who, along with his Uncle Ambrose, should be especially remembered on Memorial Day. He was a tail gunner who died from wounds received during his second mission. Mrs. Nordstrom remembers hearing the news of his death.
“I was about 10 years old when I heard the news. I was living on a small farm and was making butter. It was June 20, 1944,” she said. When Norbert was killed, the other three brothers serving were overseas.
Mrs. Nordstrom remembers the blue stars in the window that indicated a household had sons serving in the military and the gold star that indicated the family had lost a son. Her brother would have turned 21 on Aug. 20, 1944. He had forged his papers to make him old enough to serve.
“After the war, several of his service friends visited my parents,” she said.
While Mrs. Nordstrom’s relatives were all proud to serve their country and she herself trained as a nurse and worked as a nurse in VA hospitals, her father, John, who had returned home from World War I, often said, “The pain of losing a child is the only thing worse than fighting in a war.”