Letters Home From The War: Part 5

Theodore Schwenk was a private in the Army during World War I. He was 24 years old when he wrote these letters home to his parents and siblings in Ireland. The letters reveal his curiosity about how life on the farm was continuing in his absence.

Herald City Editor

World War I began July 28, 1914, when Austria declared war on Serbia after the assassinations of Austrian Archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife in Sarajevo. Fighting continued until Nov. 11, 1918.

Theodore Schwenk was a 24-year-old private in the Army in 1918 when he wrote these letters home to his parents and siblings in Ireland. In the first letter, he was concerned that his brother Gilbert would be drafted and tried to give advice on dealing with the local draft board. The draft board showed up again, in letters not excerpted here, when Theodore instructed his dad on how to fill out the paperwork to try to get Theodore home on furlough to help with the harvest; that was unsuccessful. A couple letters reference the new alcohol prohibition that was in effect in Indiana at the time, as grain was being conserved for the war effort. The letters were shared by Mr. Schwenk’s son Urban of Ireland, now 77, who served in the U.S. Army from 1956 to 1958.

April 13
Washington, D.C.
... What (is) the news about home and how fast are they sending the boys to the camp? You want to be on the lookout with the local board for they are the ones you will have to talk to. And talk to them nice. They are the main ones. The way the law is now, after you are in once, you are in to stay until the end of the war.
  The news (is) not very good about the war now, but I think it will end by next winter — and if not, it will last for some years, so prepare and keep your eyes open.
  They are going over as fast as they can but so far they have not called on me yet. It may be soon; I do not know.

How is Jasper since it went dry? I bet it is somewhat funny to go to town and can’t even get a glass of beer.

June 15
USS New Jersey
  I have time so will let you know that we have been out at sea for several days now, and are expecting to land soon.
  The weather is nice; the sea is not very rough but I would not like to go out in a small boat.
  The ship we are on is a large one. It is like a big house and home. Have plenty to eat and drink, moving pictures, boxing and games.
... Well, by this time I guess you are getting ready to thresh the wheat. We will be over in France to help them with the wheat and celebrate the 4th of July.

June 29
The day after arriving in France
... France is a nice country; we (saw) the nice green fields and trees from a great distance. The only thing that
bothers us is that we cannot speak French.
... Guess you are getting ready to thresh by now, so in your next letter let me know how many bushels of wheat my field of wheat made.

July 30
Dear Sis:
... Guess you and mamma are always busy with the work in and around the house, and papa and the rest have not much time to go to town and drink beer. Ha-ha. We have good beer and wine over here and are allowed to drink it. Would like to send papa a bottle of French beer. I know he would enjoy it because you have no more beer in Indiana.

Aug. 10
... I am well, and fat, as always. Have plenty to eat and drink. Why should we worry?
... Have more time than money now. Have not been paid for two months but think will be paid soon, as we signed the payroll a few days ago.

Date unknown
  I have not received any mail over here yet, so if you have not (written) to this address, you can and it will get here in about three weeks. The boys who were here before we came tell me that it takes a letter about seven week to make a round trip over to the States and back.
... How is the corn crop?
And who are they calling to the Army by now? Are they calling any of the farmers? Hope not.
... How are you getting over the roads with the Overland? Have seen a good many of those steel-studded tires.

Oct. 2
Dear Father:
... Will now write you a few lines to see how you are getting along with your work, since Gilbert left for Camp Custer.
  Well, this is time to sow wheat and I bet you have your ten acres sowed by now for you (were) always one of the first ones to sow. Last year at this time I had sowed twenty acres of wheat and was getting ready to leave for Camp Taylor.
Oscar said that you rented some wheat to Peter Hurst and Albert Schitter. That will be a big crop, lots of bread for the soldiers. We sure have lots to eat over here.

Dec. 30
... I received your letter of Nov. 26 today, and also the box of candy. Many thanks. The candy and cakes were fine and dandy, but you said that you had put in a few smokes. They were missing; guess somebody wanted a smoke.


Victoria Gasser

Victoria Gasser (later Corley) was a student at Jasper High School when she became a pen pal to Jasper natives John F. Gullett, a sailor, and Albert L, Sprauer, a soldier, during World War I. Gullett had been a childhood neighbor of Gasser’s at Ninth and Clay streets. The final letter from Sprauer refers to the longtime family photo studio that used to be on the Square in Jasper. The letters were shared by Mrs. Corley’s nephew Phil Buecher of Jasper.

John F. Gullett
State Pier
New London, Conn.
Aug. 29, 1918
... You see, Victoria, Navy life isn’t anything like home life and it doesn’t take one long to find it out, either, but at the same time I would not return to my regular occupation at any price during these awful war times but I’ll certainly most gladly take off my uniform and put on my English suit and shoes when it’s all over “over there,” when the world is safe for democracy, but not before, and I’ll promise you that I’ll do all I can for you while I wear Uncle Sam’s uniform.
I enlisted to protect my country and its people from the dirty inhuman treatment of the Huns and I’m perfectly satisfied here in the Navy until the Kaiser either comes to his senses or else gets his hollow skull blowed off. And his days are nearly done with in my estimation, judging from the advances of the French, British and American troops. We’re going to get that lunatic, regardless of time or money, but really I think that before next summer he’ll lose his palace at Berlin if he don’t sign up to the treaty offered him by the Allies, which is fair and square with the whole world but his intentions are to rule the world regardless of anything and he always says, “Ich und Gott,” putting himself first and then the Lord our maker, but he’s going to come to his senses when it’s too late.
Have you read and heard of how his men, directed by him, mistreated and misused the Belgian and French women and girls? Now that’s just the way he’d do our women and children if he ever enters our country, and you need not worry because Uncle Sam has the strongest army in the world at present and every American soldier and sailor will fight for liberty, justice and freedom to the last drop of blood.
  I didn’t join the Navy to keep from being drafted but I did join because I heard and felt the call to colors and there isn’t a man in the U.S. who is prouder of his uniform than I am. I had been reading war news every day until I got the fever and I quit my job at Detroit with two days’ notice. I had a good position at Detroit as head butter-maker for a $3,000,000 establishment, but my boss congratulated me upon my patriotic spirit and promised to take me in again with a raise in salary on my return. But, of course, I don’t know whether I’ll ever return and I don’t know whether I’ll be a cripple, either, but you know we must always look to a brighter future and I feel confident that I’ll return a better man than ever before — I mean physically due to exercises and work in the open air and at the same time I’m learning many things which will be beneficial to me in years to come and I’ve never felt better in my life than I do right now.
  We are well fed and paid and we are well taken care of in every way. In case of illness we have our own naval hospitals here where we are attended to by some of the best doctors and nurses in the country, so why should we worry? We are fed three good square meals per day of the very best government-inspected food which the U.S. can produce. ... Here we sleep on steel cots, or bunks as we call them, and I can sure do my part of the sleeping for we go to bed at 9 p.m. and arise at 6 a.m., so you see that ought to be enough sleep for anybody and I’m getting fat as a pig.
... I could also tell you many interesting stories regarding my duties and learning but it would be very unwise and unpatriotic to do because there is so much secrecy connected to this work so I must keep mum.
... They are organizing a new brass band here and I am going to learn to play the slide trombone under a good director, so some day you might get to hear me blow my head off. ... I read in the Herald that Roy Birge and Otto Durlauf are members of Sousa’s band at Great Lakes. Well, you know that they’ll return real musicians. I congratulate them. I didn’t see the two boys at Great Lakes because I left there before they came.
  I am sorry that I didn’t get the letter you wrote to me while at Great Lakes but you know there’s so much mail received there that they get it awfully mixed up at times. There was about 47,000 men there when I left.
... Jasper must be pretty dead without the saloons and the boys in service.

Albert L. Sprauer

Albert L. Sprauer
214th Field Signal Battalion, Company C
Camp Custer, Mich.
Sept. 18, 1918
... I belong to the 14th Division, which is scheduled for overseas in October, hence they are speeding up both our school and drill. From 5:45 a.m. to 6 p.m. (except at mealtime) we have no time for anything but work.
... The first two weeks in the Army are the most unpleasant. One receives the vaccination shots, which are very unpleasant (at least they are for me, as they made me very sick) and also is fitted out with clothing, receives his trade tests, physical examinations and etc. Since I am in barracks I am enjoying life. The fellows I am with are all high school graduates or better, and naturally the pick of the boys in the Army.
... (I) notice that they sent out a large bunch of men since I left. There will not be a boy left in another year. You girls will have to spend your time in different ways from what you’re used to. In another year we will have the Germans licked. Just wait till our bunch gets over there.

Nov. 21
... When the soldiers get back home they will have much to say, but you will find that a lot of it will not be told. I do not mean the battle experiences, as I know nothing of that, but many things concerning their lives spent at training camps. But unless you misinterpret, (I) will say that everything possible is done for the boys. Food is very good and etc., but the discipline, work and etc. is what I am referring to.
  This life is working wonders for me: I have gained 10 pounds and a very healthy color, besides getting as hard as a nail. We get as much exercise as we can stand, plenty of good food and fresh air. It does one good to see a battalion or regiment lined up at drill or physical drill, everyone in the pink of condition. The American Army is that way clear through. It is no wonder the Hun wanted to quit. I don’t blame him.
... We have completed our gas training. Went through poison gas with our masks on, but we had to lift the nose piece to sniff it so that we could recognize the smell of it “over there.” Also went through tear gas with and without masks. One can’t keep his eyes open more than a second. Just seems as if it would burn them out. Every man must be able to put his mask on in six or less seconds before he can go across.

Jan. 14, 1919
... I was home Christmas but had such a short stay that I was unable to get anywhere but home and the studio. If I have good luck I’ll be home Friday or Saturday of next week. Things are so uncertain in the Army that it may be sooner or later. A few days ago I thought that it would be the end of this week. One just has to await developments. Will be very glad to make the change. Since the war is over, there is nothing to look forward to.
... We have never let up on our training, which is still intensive, even though 10 percent have been discharged, and 40 percent more are scheduled to go at any time. Every week we have examinations. Those are merely to find out how much progress we are making. Now today we had final examinations, and are scheduled for some tomorrow. They were general examinations, and hope final. Everyone thinks of the discharge, you know.

About this series: A few months ago, The Herald asked readers for letters written by their loved ones from World War II. We received more than a dozen responses, including from a couple of people who had letters from World War I. Some readers had fewer than a handful of letters to share, while others had dozens, even hundreds. From now through Veterans Day, we are publishing excerpts from the letters received. The words are original to the writers, though some spelling and some punctuation have been altered.

Part 1: In shared company — Soldiers and sailors wrote of new experiences and of missing the old routines.
Part 2: Pigeoneer Marty Gosman — This soldier followed the birth of his firstborn from a distance.
Part 3: Two who never came home — The sisters of Calvin Voelkel and Lowell Gray always have wondered what might have been.
Part 4: Pharmacist Denny Bell — This sailor — the father of two — wrote his wife almost daily.
Part 5: From World War I — A soldier missed the farm he grew up on, and several servicemen were pen pals with a Jasper girl.

Contact Martha Rasche at mrasche@dcherald.com.

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