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Keystone State plays key role in WWI

U.S. soldiers in trench putting on gas masks, World War I around 1918. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

Situated just prior to two of the most cataclysmic events of the 20th century — the Great Depression and World War II — it’s not surprising that World War I is a bit overlooked when the story of America is told.

But for those who had a hand in it, as well as their descendants, the so-called “War to End All Wars” is anything but a footnote in our nation’s history.

That goes double for those who hailed from Pennsylvania, which played a key role both on the battlefields and on the home front.

Nearly 300,000 Keystone State residents served in the U.S. Army during the Great War, most of them in the 28th, 79th and 80th Divisions. According to the United States World War One Centennial Commission, 10,278 Pennsylvania soldiers were killed in combat — that’s roughly 1 out of every 5 American soldiers who died in battle.

Sam Marshall

Another 26,252 Pennsylvania soldiers were wounded, and 449 were listed as missing in action. And it wasn’t just the men; many female nurses served in France, including the University of Pittsburgh’s Base Hospital 27. Mercy Hospital alone sent 38 women.

That’s not all. Thousands more served in the Navy; in fact, the Centennial Commission estimated that 10,500 men and women from the Philadelphia area alone wore the Navy uniform during the war.

At home, Pennsylvania residents were busy producing the materials needed to outfit, transport and arm the U.S. fighting forces and Allied troops before America’s involvement. Of all the steel used by Allied forces during the war, Pittsburgh area mills produced more than half of it.

From the beginning of the war in 1914 to America’s entry in the fray three years later, some 250 Pittsburgh-area war plants were in production nonstop, employing nearly a half million men and women around the clock. This led some to refer to Pittsburgh as the “Arsenal of the World.”

In Western Pennsylvania, Westinghouse, U.S. Steel and the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) all were major contributors to the war effort, as were researchers at Pittsburgh’s largest universities. Westinghouse alone produced more than 5 million shells for the British Army by the end of the war. Other Pittsburgh plants produced millions more bullets, shells and cartridge cases for the British navy.

Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co., meanwhile, produced an estimated 20% of the optical glass used in fire control instruments – mostly telescopic sights and rangefinders -- utilized by the Army and Navy.

World War I soldiers return home to New York City on the U.S. transport George Washington as it touches the pier at New York. Photo courtesy Library of Congress

According to the Centennial Commission, Pennsylvania produced nearly half the munitions supplied to the Army, most of the ships that went to the Navy and a large portion of the coal that America utilized during the war.

On the eastern end of the state, Philadelphia tanners produced roughly three out of every four military boots and shoes. A rifle factory built and leased to Remington in Eddystone produced more than 2 million rifles, and Baldwin Locomotive Works — also in Eddystone — built more than 5,000 locomotives for the Allies. A former Ford automotive plant was converted to making machine gun trucks and more than 2.7 million steel Doughboy helmets, according to the Centennial Commission.

This is the Bible of Sam Marshall when he was a soldier in World War I.
Lifetime bonds

All the soldiers who wore those helmets are gone now; the last living World War I veteran — Missouri native Frank Buckles — died in 2011 at the age of 110. But they are far from forgotten. In fact, one organization — known as Descendants and Friends of the 314th Infantry Regiment A.E.F. — still assembles annually for a memorial program in Valley Forge. It’s believed to be the only group of its kind that has met annually since what Joel Rentz calls “the Great War.”

Rentz began attending the event with his father and grandfather, Irwin Rentz, the latter of whom served in the 314th, and he’s been going ever since.

“It’s more than a memorial service,” said Joel Rentz, who fields queries to the group’s robust website. “What it was really about originally was a gathering of the veterans. Anyone who’s served in the military together, you’re friends for life after going through that kind of hell.”

Originally the group was named the Veterans of the 314th Infantry Regiment A.E.F. — the abbreviation for American Expeditionary Force, essentially the U.S. Army in France during World War I. After all the veterans had passed, the group changed its name, but not its purpose.

Rentz, who grew up near Reading and now lives in Florida, said his grandfather never talked about his experiences with the 314th, which was part of the 79th Division and saw action in some of the war’s bloodiest battles. Among them was the Meuse-Argonne, which involved more than a million American soldiers, more than 26,000 of whom never made it home. Another 95,000-plus were wounded in what historian Edward G. Lengel called the largest single battle in American military history in terms of size and cost.

This is the first pontoon bridge built across the Marne by U.S. Engineers in Lucy, France. This photograph from July 1981 was taken by the Signal Corps of the United States Army. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress

“I’ve heard from a number of people whose grandfather or great uncle served and with almost all of them, it’s the same answer — they weren’t comfortable talking about the experiences,” Rentz said. “I read about some of the battles — all the casualties and how they died. It was horrible — really, really horrible.”

Foot soldier’s journey
Sam Marshall, World War I, with brother John, and Clark Porter

Former Cranberry Township resident Clark Marshall certainly can relate. Marshall’s father, Samuel Francis Marshall, was drafted in 1917 and was discharged in early 1919, several months after the armistice that ended the war was signed on Nov. 11, 1918.

Samuel Marshall saw almost a year’s combat as a foot soldier in the 80th Division, fighting in the Meuse-Argonne and at St. Mihiel in the fall of 1918. When the armistice was signed, Clark Marshall said, his father “was in a trench, getting ready to get out and go after them.”

Postcard from Sam Marshall to his siser, Mary, while he was serving in World War I.Submitted photo

Clark Marshall, who grew up in West Deer Township like his father and lived in Cranberry for 17 years before moving to Oklahoma, said his father never talked much about his experiences in combat either.

“I asked him one time, ‘How close were you to getting shot?’ He said, ‘I was lying on the ground, pointing my rifle and getting ready to shoot something, and the button was shot off my shirt.’ I would say that’s pretty close. He also had a couple of dings where bullets bounced off his helmet.

“That was the last time I brought it up.”

Prior to that, Samuel Marshall shared one other recollection with his son — a memory of a time where he and his cohorts were told to camp for the night in a wooded area on a ridge in France. He balked.

“He said, ‘We’re not going to sleep in those woods — the Germans are going to shell those woods and nothing will be left,’” Clark Marshall said. “So, they went down a ways, dug their foxholes and sure enough — boom, boom, boom. They went and looked the next morning, and all that was left of those woods were dead tree trunks sticking up in the air like matchsticks.”

Sam Marshall, serving during World War I, in a trench in France.

Although Samuel Marshall never took a bullet, he did receive what ultimately proved to be a fatal injury during his time in France, as he died in 1966 from lung cancer — the result of being exposed to mustard gas.

Not short on courage

The Butler area saw more than 2,600 of its finest serve in the military during World War I, including Ernest E. Hall. Hall stood just 5-foot-31/2 and went by the nickname “Shorty,” but he was not short on courage.

According to his son, Mark Hall, a Butler resident and a retired teacher, Ernest Hall enlisted in the service, lying about his age to get in, putting lifts in his shoes to make himself appear taller and eating bananas by the bunches to pack on a few extra pounds before his induction.

Hall was luckier than many; he arrived in France on the day the armistice was signed.

“There surely is a great celebration under way here,” Hall wrote from Base Hospital 97 to his “Dear Ones At Home” in a letter published by a Butler newspaper. “I never saw people as exultant as these ones are now. It surely is a glad day for them, for they must have suffered untold agonies.”

Although the fighting had ceased the day Hall arrived, he was still pressed into duty as an ambulance driver, ferrying the wounded from a field hospital to a main hospital for treatment. “He saw a lot of stuff he said was pretty gruesome,” Mark Hall said.

In addition to publishing letters like the one Ernest Hall wrote, local newspapers spotlighted some of the area soldiers during their training at home and ultimately on the battlefields of France. The Butler Eagle, in August of 1917, ran a photo of Clair S. Black, noting that he “abandoned the motion picture machine at the Lyric theater where he was operator and on April 10, just eight day’s after the United States declared war upon Germany, enlisted in the service of Uncle Sam …. The accompanying picture is a splendid likeness of the Butler patriot.”

Not all the newspaper stories were as uplifting. One story noted the death of Sgt. Howard H. Bradshaw, son of a former pastor of the West Sunbury Presbyterian church, from wounds received in action. In the same Oct. 16, 1918, edition, the Butler Eagle reported that Mrs. Annie Fleischer of Lincoln Avenue had received word regarding the death of her son, Pvt. George W. Fleischer, on the battlefields of France. The story noted that while Mrs. Fleischer mourned the loss of her son, she “wished she had 10 sons to give for the great cause of world democracy.”

Another story noted the death of W.C. Duffield, a 35-year-old Butler resident killed in action in the “famous Marne-Soisson’s drive.” And yet another article reported the death of Pvt. Carl Hovis of Butler, killed in action during the Marne fighting just five months after leaving for France. Eerily, Hovis’ mother, Elizabeth Hovis, was informed of her son’s Oct. 4 death and then received a letter from him dated Sept. 21 just a few days later.

Victory parades

In the end, when the armistice was signed and fighting came to a halt, locals gave thanks in what the Butler Citizen described as “victory parades,” which featured thousands of participants, including 5,000 to 6,000 employees of the Standard Steel Car Works and the Forged Steel Wheel.

The newspaper characterized the celebration as “a sort of Fourth of July, Hallowe’en and victory celebration all in one, which made up for many previous holidays observed in a half-hearted way owing to the general depression cast by the shadows of war, famine and pestilence stalking through the world.”

Parade watchers lined the sidewalks, oblivious to the November cold, holding their children up to see the “passing show, seeming to realize that these would soon be historic scenes — a part of one of the greatest days in the history of the world.”

No doubt some of those parade participants and observers ended up with a memento or souvenir from the Great War. Clark Marshall, for instance, had some of his father’s war mementos for years before donating them to the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Pittsburgh. Among the mementos were parts of Samuel Marshall’s uniform and some letters that were written to him while he was overseas.

“I had no need for it,” Clark Marshall said of his decision to donate his father’s war-related material. “I didn’t need to carry it around. I have my memories of my dad — that’s all I need.”

Frank Garland is a retired college professor, freelance writer and coordinator of the Pittsburgh Media Partnership, based at Point Park University's Center for Media Innovation.

Sam Marshall, serving in World War I, standing at the ready with his rifle. Submitted photo
Sam Marshall, World War I Submitted photo
This photograph was taken Jan. 4, 1819, of Sam Marshall, in his uniform during World War I. Submitted photo

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