Respecting Sacrifices and History This Holiday Week
I’ve taken on a task and set a deadline of having it completed by this Christmas. I’ve been working on it over the last couple of years and have been making progress – albeit too slowly. I’m hoping that setting a deadline will help.
The task is to take the next step in documenting the family history of my parents’ generation while drawing on what has been documented of their parents and their families. It won’t be a complete picture by any means, but more of a gathering of stories, photographs, writings and written genealogy in book format. So far, the name I’ve got for the book is “Growing up Stieve.” We’ll see if that sticks.
Reading through a number of the old materials reminds me on this Fourth of July week that history teaches the lesson again and again that we should never take the liberties, choices and lifestyles that we enjoy in this country for granted. Much has been sacrificed and we have much to safeguard.
One of the special family pieces that has survived is a letter by John Stempke, my great uncle on my father’s side. The seven-page, double-sided letter is on American Red Cross Camp Service letterhead from the U.S. General Hospital No. 28 at Ft. Sheridan, Ill. John’s letter is written in pencil with good handwriting dated Jan. 10, 1919. Through the letter, he briefly shares his whole World War I experience with excellent documentation of time, date and location. Here is an overview of the letter:
John left the farm for Baraboo on October 2, 1917 and then went to Rockford. Ill. From there he, along with others, was sent to Camp Logan in Texas and eventually put into Co. D. 132nd infantry and sent east. He got on a transport on May 15 in Hoboken, New Jersey. The next day at 3:33 p.m., they were ordered into their bunks and the ship pulled out of harbor headed for France. In two hours, they were ordered up on deck and all they could see was water. It took eight days to cross the ocean and they landed in Brest, France on May 24.
After seven days of living in tents near the Nopolan Barracks, they boarded freight trains – 40 men to a car. The car was so crowded that they could barely turn around for two days and nights. From there, they trained with the British, camped in fields, hiked and fought where they were sent. In Mollum Woods, still with the British, they were sent to fight in the trenches for several days at a time. When their shift came out, they were only given a day or two before returning to the trenches again. Some of the time they fought along with Australians.
From there they hiked, fought and traveled their way through various fronts. By September, they were in location at the big French dugouts – room enough for a battalion of men with some electrical lighting. From the dugouts, the French men would guide them to the trenches at the front. They fought all night and slept during the day when they could. This was near a village called Chatten-Court. On the 12th of September, they went over the top and took Forges Woods without hardly any casualties – only a couple killed and a handful wounded. They stayed in the woods for two weeks and when they went over the top of the trenches again nearly the whole battalion got wiped out entirely. They held the line for about a week until they got relief. From there, they were then shifted around a lot. He details how they stayed in one place four or five days and then would move about 20 miles away to fight again. He writes “that moving was always done at night for if a German would see us he would shoot at us; which he was doing most of the time anyways.” Those left in the battalion were sent out of Forges Woods area around 5 o’clock in the evening on October 21, 1918 for the city of Verdum.
Moving again to various places, they relived B Co. on October 27 near a little village by the name of Dommertin. Everything was okay for a couple of days – even without trenches or dugouts for cover. All they had were holes dug in the ground a couple of feet deep for protection. They stayed in them during the day since the Germans in observation points could see and shoot them if they moved around. It was on the 29th of October that the Germans sent over “a lot of mustard gas.” John writes that “mostly everything around got gassed. I was company runner at the time and got a strong concentration of gas the rest of the night. In the morning, the sun came up nice and bright that raised the gas and made it unhealthy for anyone to live around there. All the food was gassed so we went hungry.”
He was finally sent to a first aid station where they gave him a piece of cloth with some solution in dish. He was told to bathe his eyes with water. John writes, “My eyes began to burn like fire and water so that in a few minutes I was not able to see anything. They then took me to a hospital in an ambulance where they took all of my clothes and tried to bathe away as much of the gas as possible. With clean clothes, they then transferred us to another hospital and then loaded us onto a Red Cross train. After two days, we arrived in base hospital No. 3 in Monspond. I was put in ward 3 and spent three weeks there.” After being transferred through various wards and hospitals to the coast, he boarded a transport ship back to America on December 8. After 12 days on the water, he came into the same Hoboken, New Jersey port on December 20. Through Army and Red Cross transport, John made his way to receiving ward 28 at Ft. Sheridan, Ill. He stayed there until February 21, when he was sent to Camp Grant in Rockford, Ill. John writes, “On March 1 I got discharged from the service the happiest guy.”
It’s written that John Stempke received a Purple Heart for his service but never was quite right again. John just liked to sit in the rocking chair by the window and enjoy the sun – having never fully recovered from the effects of the mustard gas. The Stempke family sold its farm near Sauk and moved to Baraboo in a little white house across from the area that became the Baraboo Zoo before the government came and took over the land in the Sauk area to build the Baraboo Army Ammunition Plant around World War II.
John’s letter is just a glimpse of what it has been and is like for the many men and women who have fought, suffered and given their lives for this country and other humanity causes around the world. Perhaps sharing a bit of his letter will help us all remember the lessons of history and what has been sacrificed by so many.