The Minnesota Historical Society preserves and makes available a wide range of materials chronicling Minnesota's history and culture. The goals of the Collections Department are to collect and preserve; provide access and interpretation; and engage in education and outreach. This blog is a tool to share these stories and let people know what is happening in the department.
In September, St. Paul native David Backus left his position as an ambulance driver to attend flight school in Tours, France. In a letter to his mother, he estimated that he would graduate in mid-October of 1917, but many days of rainstorms and high winds had delayed his training by approximately two weeks. Backus finally obtained his pilot’s license on November 3, 1917, along with sixteen other Americans.
In a letter to his mother dated November 10, 1917, Backus recounts his graduation and his celebratory trip to Paris. He certainly enjoyed his brief vacation, especially because he happened to meet one of his heroes, the chief pilot of his French flight school, while he was there. After his time off, Backus entered a more extensive training program about the Nieuport pursuit plane. Upon his graduation, he and six fellow students were attached to the French Air Squadron C. 21, and they became the first American aviators to see combat in World War I.
Well I am a Pilot-- was received my French Brevet Nov. 2. Went to Paris for three days permission, had some things I had to leave there and also had to get some of my clothes there. I wanted to go down to [Arcachon] -- south of Bordeaux-- Baron de Haven had given me a letter to his wife down there and also to footmen etc-- corking shooting ducks, geese etc. but I could not make it, however I am going to try. He is a mighty fine man-- about forty five year old and has lived in the States-- was one of my Monsiteurs at where I was. Am now down here at a U.S. Aviation school am hope to take my Perfection work on Nieuports, Acrobatics & machine gun practise. [sic] It has rained continuously and this place is a sea of liquid mud. Hope they decided to send us to another school for our Nieuport work. Am enclosing a couple of snapshots. What commission did clinton get in the artillery? This is certainly a black day for the Allies, with the Huns threatening Venice, treacherous Russia, threatening to make a seperate peace, but there is a ray of sunshine on the fact that the Huns are being pressed to their utmost by the British in Flanders and the French have just been victorious on the Chemon [sic] des Dames, would have liked to have been back up there for this last big attack, it must have been great. [...] Best of love to all the family and remember me to all my friends
First Lieutenant Walter A. Jones was a pilot in the 17th Aero Squadron. He died in plane a accident at Fort Worth, TX on this day in 1917. Jones' Gold Star Roll file includes extensive documentation of his life, including two photographs, a copy of an article that was found in his pocket titled "American Birdman Dazzles Camp Bowie," and a transcribed copy of a Minnesota Daily article in response to his death.
The Daily article describes him as "one of the best liked fellows of school," and reports that he is the first University of Minnesota student to die in the war. The article expresses sorrow, shock, and patriotism in response to his loss. It also reports that he was a member of the Garrick Club (a drama group), treasurer of Tau Shonka (an interfraternity service society), in a sophomore vaudeville and the Jazz band, and a member of the Alpha Delta Phi fraternity. Elsewhere in his file his father also reports that Jones was involved in golf, basketball, and tennis and played the violin, mandolin-guitar, and sang.
Citation: "Jones, Walter A." Minnesota Public Safety Commission. Gold Star Roll. Minnesota Historical Society, St Paul, Minnesota. 114.D.4.4F
"Americans Tell Verdun Horrors" and "Women Replace Men in Machine Shops" - The Daily People's Press. November 9, 1917
Pins like this were given to men who were exempt from the military draft. This identifier, which could be worn on the lapel to indicate exempt status, became necessary in the face of the perception that draft evasion was common among able-bodied men. This angered many people, some of whom felt that it was unfair that their own relatives were risking their lives while others stayed home. These men were perceived as "slackers," and "slacker raids" were conducted to rectify their evasion of the draft. However, many men were legally exempt from the draft for a variety of reasons. These men could wear pins like this one to avoid judgement or harassment in public. One common exemption one could claim was non-citizenship or alien status, which, combined with anti-immigrant sentiments, heightened the negative perceptions of immigrants who were not at war. Other exemptions included men with dependant wives and children, and those who worked in jobs that were considered vital or that supported the war effort, like farmers and welders.
Citation: Minnesota Historical Society Collection. 380.H174
"Suffrage Wins in N.Y. After Ten Years' Fight" and "America Enters Pact with Japan" - Rochester Daily Post and Record. November 7, 1917
In this letter to his mother, Corporal Maurice E. Masterson, resident of Barnesville, Minnesota, describes his journey to and arrival in France and his feelings about the war in his initial days in the military. He tells his mother that he is glad to have come because the people of France are suffering, and need the help of U.S. troops. He also mentions some people he has met, and tells her not to expect to many letters but to write him as much as possible, and also to send candy from home.
This letter is one of several included as a copy in Corporal Masterson's Gold Star Roll file. He was killed by an enemy shell on November 1st, 1918.
On Active Service
American Expeditionary Force
Nov. 6, 1917
Well, it's been rather a long time since you've heard from me, hasn't it? I hope you haven't worried too much, and are enjoying yourself as much as I am. In spite of everything, I really do enjoy it. The going will not be smoother, it has long since ceased to be that way, but there will always be one "dude" that's happy. That's going to be yours truly.
Our trio across was blessed with an abundance of good weather and almost a total lack of seasickness. I personally was not sick for a minute, but landed in the very pink of condition and am still that way.
[...] The place at which we are now stationed is just what I had imagined it would be, only more so. Picturesque, beautiful, a scene resting to the eye, a picture such as no artist could paint. Yesterday I came along one of the busier streets of the village, turned a corner and walked along a side street. At the end of this street I saw one of the prettiest scenes I've ever had the chance to see. It was only a peasant farmhouse, but it was such a farmhouse as the poets write of. It appealed to me as beauty, a peaceful spot in a world at war. It's only one of the many new things that I'm seeing, one of the things that will stick in my memory.
Before I left the U. S. I felt glad of the chance to come. I thot the cause great and wanted to strike a blow in defense of humanity. Since I arrived my heart is filled with regret that I did not come before. [...] And since I have seen the desolation war can bring would gladly die a thousand times rather than have you or any American mother witness its horror. And I have but seen the outer edge. Be only glad that you have sons to give to help a people who have given their all.
[...] I want a letter the worst way. Keep the supply up to its former standard. By the way, I want all the home made candy my friends are willing to send. Sweets are at a premium here and we've got to have them. Pass the word, Love to all, this is a family letter.,
Your loving son
Citation: "Masterson, Maurice E." Minnesota Public Safety Commission. Gold Star Roll. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota 114.D.4.4F
Andrew H. Halseth was a U.S. Navy Gun Captain from Bemidji, Minnesota. He died on this date in 1917 after falling out of his hammock on board the U.S. De Kalb and sustaining brain injuries. Halseth's Gold Star Roll file includes a photograph, newspapers clippings, letters from the Navy regarding his death, and copies of his letters. The Base Chaplain in Nazaire, France, sent Halseth's father a letter describing the funeral, expressing how highly everyone viewed him. His body was eventually sent back to his family in the U.S. after several months of delays.
November 7, 1917.
[...] My dear Mr. Halseth:
You have already been informed of the sad death of your son Andrew. I am writing you the particulars regarding the funeral services knowing that it will be a comfort to you. You son died in Hospital No. 101 of concussion of the brain resulting from a fall from a hammock. The funeral took place this morning (November 7th) at eight o'clock. The procession moved from the Hospital to the Cemetary where full military honors were shown the deceased. The escort consisted of two squads of seamen. The Captain, two other officers and 22 sailors of the U.S.S. DE KALB were also present. The Burial Office was read by the Rev. Thomas S. Cline, Chaplain of the 19th Engineers (Ry.) now acting as Base Chaplain. After the service the three volleys were fired and the bugler sounded taps. The Chaplain said in his address that according to the word of the Captain of the DE KALB Andrew M.Halseth was an excellent seaman, faithful in the performance of every duty, commanding always the honor and respect of his officers and fellow seamen. May I express to you my sincere sympathy in the loss of your son but at the same time may I congratulate you upon his honorable record. The officers of the ship have arranged to take the body back to the United States which will be a great comfort to you, no doubt.
Very faithfully yours,
Thomas S. Cline
"Halseth, Andrew M." Minnesota Public Safety Commission. Gold Star Roll. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 114.D.4.3B
Percy Christianson recalled spending his eighteenth birthday on his transatlantic journey to France. Only two of his friends in the Marines knew that it was his birthday, so that night the three of them sat on one of the gang planks at the front of the ship (in secret) and ate white bread and blueberry jam. Christianson's friend Harry had bought it for $50 from the mess hall. This was quite a treat for the servicemen on a military transport ship.
[...] At, almost, precisely the middle of the Atlantic ocean I became eighteen years old on Nov. 4, 1917. This was one of the most memorable birthdays that I ever had or perhaps will have. There were only two other marine buddies that I informed it was my birthday. They both agreed that we must have a celebration of some kind. Harry, one of my two buddies was full of the devil all the time. His worries about anything was minus. He was likable and the most wonderful pal I ever had. He always had three or five hundred dollars in his money belt. From his story, the family was wealthy and sent him five hundred dollars before he left the U.S.A. He didn't brag about it. Just laughed and said "Hell, they want me to have a good time on a mission like this, with a German torpedo, probably waiting for a broadside aim!" He would laugh again. You couldn't help but laugh along with his way of expressing it.
After talking over this birthday celebration idea, there wasn't much we could think about doing. Pretty soon Harry jumped up and said, "I've got an idea!" He asked us to wait right where we were until he got back. We waited for a good hour. It was getting late and we worried some about him. Finally Harry got back with a bundle under his arm. He put his finger to his lips to indicate quiet. He signaled a "come on" with his fingers. He lead the way and we followed. He crawled out on one of the gang planks used to load troops from dock to ship. The gang plank was laid parallel with the fore part of the ship and strapped down. He found a place for us to set. We were alone. He opened the package. The greatest surprise I ever had was placed in my hands. A quart can of blueberry jam and a large loaf of white bread. Both my boys said, quietly so no one could hear, "Happy Birthday." We broke the bread in three pieces. We opened the jam can with a knife. We dug the jam out with our fingers, smeared it over the bread. Blueberry jam!!! To a sugar starved Marine, this was a taste treat to stimulate every taste gland in the mouth. The treat was out of this world.
I asked Harry how in the world he ever managed to buy bread and jam on a transport ship. He laughed, as usual and replied "Fifty dollars goes a long way even in the mess hall kitchen of a battle ship!"
Citation: Percy B. Christianson Papers. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. P2371
On this day David Backus became an officially licenced pilot. His diary does not make much note of this event, instead descibing his practice flight and landing activities, including practicing "spirals." In this context, a spiral is a defensive manouver where the pilot takes a spiraling dive, and then pulls out of the spiral close to the ground. He does alude to his graduation from flight school in one instance, writing, "Did a spiral both ways for the fun of it + landed-- Brevet-- Rah!!" In French, "brevet" can refer to recieving a promotion or certificate--or to the winged badge a pilot recieves upon completing their flight training. A few days later, Backus and some his classmates would relocate to Paris upon completion of their training in Tours, France.
Saturday Nov. 3
Well no voyages this A.M. so I went over + made 12 landings in 1 hr. 15 mi. Then made a Petite Voyage--five barograph-- to Vendome + return took me 1 hr. 5 mi. there and return-- got some chocote [sic] + crackers. Then went out, John Young Carver, Taylor + I made our Spirals, used Le Rhone motor, cut at 600 meters over T + spiral down landing on T. Then went back on Anzani, made 9 landings in one hour, fifteen minutes dark. Did a spiral both ways for the fun of it + landed-- Brevet-- Rah!! [...] Went over with Dick + bunch to little village above green hanger, had a corking dinner.
Citation: David Backus Collection. Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, Minnesota. 123.D.10.6F