Reflections on the United States Entering World War I, 100 Years Later

A photo taken of Americans in Europe, shortly after the U.S. entered World War I.

Below is an article originally appearing in a Saturday insert of the Jamestown Post-Journal on April 1, 1967 on what was then the 50th anniversary of the U.S. Entering “The War to End All Wars.” The article was written by Leigh E. Burdick, who was at the time of the writing the editor of the paper, and was also a World War I veteran.

– J. Sample

– – – – –

Editor’s Note – Leigh E. Burdick, then a reporter on the former Jamestown Morning Post, enlisted at 18 and went to France with the 29th Engineers, G.H.Q. His outfit helped print the Stars and Stripes in Paris, operate a base printing plant at Langres and supplied surveyors, mobile printing units and technicians to several Army crops and divisions.

Fifty years ago next Thursday, April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany and her allies. World War I started and an awkward, adolescent giant, not aware of its own strength, started its march onto the world stage of international leadership and involvement.

Fifty years ago next Friday, April 7, 1917, Ira Lou Spring, a Jamestown teenager, one year out of high school, enlisted in the U.S. Marines. He was to be the first Jamestown solider to die in action in France and his memory was to be perpetuated by the American Legion post bearing his name. Thus does history mesh.

Today, after half a century, fewer than 500 men who wore khaki and olive drab; suffered wrap leggings and stiff, tight jacket collars; read their shirts for cooties; slept in French mud or marched to “Over There,” are still alive in Jamestown to remember.

We who are left of the 2,500,000-man American Expeditionary Force that left 320,710 dead on French battlefields, provide the ever-weakening physical link with the war to “Make the world safe for democracy.” It is estimated that today we occupy the same moment in “Old Soldier” history as did veterans of the Civil War at the time World War I began, for the average age of surviving WWI veterans is about 72.

The backdrop of all wars is different as man’s increase in knowledge changes the technology in pursuing them. Only the dying remains the same. This was the first evangelistic war in which the United States crossed the seas to pursue an ideal. It came before radio, television, or commercial airplane travel. Only one or two homes in a block had telephones. Travel was on mud roads in scarce automobiles, by trolley, train or boat. The phonograph was the mass media of entertainment and there were no long playing records. Sheet music and pianos popularized the ballads that are still heard on radio and television.

In World War I a great many men enlisted but even more went by draft which took farmers, factory workers, clerks and other civilians, most of whom had never handled a gun.

Little wonder that German general staff members shrugged off America’s entrance into the war in the belief that this country could not train and field an army soon enough to save England and France. But that was to provide the miracle of the war.

Take for instance men like Ira Lou Spring of Jamestown.

The United States had entered the conflict with an army of 200,000 men carrying obsolete weapons. The Army Signal Corps had 55 planes. The Navy was in better shape, but far from war footing. Then came the green civilians. On July 4, 1917, elements of the First Army paraded through Paris to the cheers and tears of the populace. The phrase “Lafayette we are here” was born. By the end of 1917 there were 180,000 American troops in France, serving under Gen. John J. Pershing and the supreme allied commander, Ferdinand Foch. They helped stem the German offensive at Cantigny and Chateau-Thierry. Then, spearheaded by U.S. Marines, they went over to the offensive at Belleau Wood on June 6, 1918, and captured the strategic square mile of forest with a casualty rate of 58 per cent. On July 18 began the big allied offensive at Soissons, to be followed by the battles of the Argonne and the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918. In the interval the A.E.F. was to build up to a force of 2,500,000.

But let us recall the story of Ira Lou Spring of Jamestown.

American “doughboys” serving in Europe during World War I

He had enlisted in the 42nd Company, Fifth Regiment of Marines. He fought through Chateau-Thierry and died at Belleau Wood on June 14, 1918. By strange coincidence, Charles E. Jones, 1398 Newland Avenue, was probably the last Jamestowner to see him alive.

Mr. Jones, who served with the 306th Transportation Corps, and who had been chauffeuring for officers, was pressed into emergency service early in June to drive a truck and help transport fresh Marine troops from St. Nazaire, port of entry, to Chateau-Thierry to help the allies fill the gaping lines and prevent the Germans from covering the last 30 miles to Paris. At this time allied troops were being rushed to the front in taxicabs and every other available means of transportation. It was at this interval that Mr. Jones met Ira Lou Spring and talked about “home.” Young Spring was to be one on the heavy American casualty list who died to stop the German drive and provide the turning point in the war.

It is a strange coincidence that only a week or two ago officials of Ira Lou Spring Post should receive a photostatic copy of a letter written by young Spring to his Jamestown buddy, C. E. Wood, in September, 1917 from France. Mr. Wood, now a resident of Shaker Heights, Ohio, wrote:

“I thought perhaps, inasmuch as your post is named for him, this letter might be of interest.”

In the letter young Spring refers to his AZ high school fraternity, asked “how is school this year?” and “Is there going to be a football team?” and adds “It hardly seems as though I’d been out of old JHS a whole year.”

He closes the letter with this significant paragraph:

“Charlie, if you can ever put on enough weight and height to enlist you can’t do any more than get shot and no one seems to let that possibility worry them.”

Ira Lou Spring was buried in the Aisne-Marne Military Cemetery in France where “crosses grow, row on row.” In 1927 representatives of the local Legion post, Frederick P. Rogers, Emil Hammerstrom and Nels Olsen placed a wreath on his grave as his mother, Jamestown’s first Gold Star Mother, looked on.

Mrs. E. Walton Spring, the mother a gracious and active woman in church and local affairs, died in 1940 at the age of 73. That same year the boy’s father went to Mt. Kisco to live with a daughter, Mrs. T. C. Sloson, but not before the Legion post held a testimonial dinner in his honor. For Mr. Spring had served as honorary chaplain of the post for more than 20 years and had given it its first set of colors in honor of his son. He, too, is dead.

The thousands of men from Jamestown and Chautauqua County who served in 1917-1919 were scattered with every army corps and division and all branches of the service. But Jamestown had one unit of 150 men, Company E, 74th Infantry, New York National Guard, which served on the Mexican border in 1916 chasing Pancho Villa and was returned in time to be federalized in 1917. This unit went across, most of them with the 27th Division but some as the 79th Pioneer Infantry. Seventeen were killed in action and many wounded while serving in many major battles.

The company was commanded, both on the Mexican border and in France by Charles A. Sandburg. Its first lieutenant was A. Bartholdi Peterson, who became the first commander of the Ira Lou Spring Post.

Jamestown welcomed home with enthusiastic parades at least three large contingents of Jamestown servicemen, including Company E and elements of the 78th and 77th Divisions.

From buck privates to Major General Charles J. Bailey who commanded the 81st Division, this city and area provided fighting men in every segment of rank and war activity.

Now the passage of time is erasing more than the veterans. Facts and figures of 50 years ago are hard to come by. You will find some in the public library in old scrap books and probably hundreds of attics. You’ll find some of the most quiet and grey older men in pots of the Legion, FVW, ??? Barracks of WWI and Disabled War Veterans.

And if you want to look carefully through the Veterans Hospitals you can find others for whom the war never ended, even poison gas victims.

They don’t use mustard gas these days, although we have nuclear weapons. That’s evolution.

It was gen. MacArthur, who also served in WWI, who said: “Old soldiers never died, they just fade away.” And they are doing that.

It looks as though by the time Vietnam is in the history books we will be even fewer.

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