Wednesday, April 12, 2017

One Duluth Man's WWI Experience...

By Jim Heffernan
George Henry Heffernan in WWI Uniform, circa 1918
On a bright, beautiful garbage pickup day a few years ago, I watched as the truck lifted our bin, dumped the contents into its box, and drove away. I don't always pay that much attention to garbage pickup, but on this day our refuse included a plastic bag with very special contents: My father's World War I U.S. Army uniform, sans buttons and insignia. 

Reflecting on it as the truck disappeared, a lump formed in my throat. It meant so much to my father to have served, in many ways defining his life. But after almost a century, the uniform couldn't be saved.

Much has been made recently marking the 100th anniversary of the entry of the United States into the conflict roiling Europe since the guns of August were loosed by Germany on its neighbors three years earlier.

On April 6, 1917, the U.S. Congress, at the behest of President Woodrow Wilson, declared war on Germany. The action was felt in every community in the nation, certainly including Duluth.

Tens of thousands of American young men were conscripted or joined on their own to go off to France to fight in "the war to end all wars," as it was optimistically and naively billed at the time. Along with scores of other Duluthians, George Heffernan, 23, was among them. He wasn't my father yet -- he married late and I was born 22 years later.

The Duluth contingent marched to the train on Dec. 17, 1917, heading for the "Pacific Coast," as the Duluth News Tribune put it the morning after the departure. George was employed as a photo engraver for a firm that provided the plates that produced the photos in the News Tribune. He worked in the Tribune building, then on Superior Street between Lake Avenue and First Avenue East. The building is still standing, long since put to other uses.

The paper on Dec. 18 ran a photo of my father with the words "Leaves For Camp" above it and featuring the following caption: "Among the soldiers who left Duluth for the Pacific Coast last night was George Heffernan, for many years a valued employee of the Duluth Photo Engraving company. He was enrolled in the contingent from the second Duluth district. His fellow employees gave him a wrist watch and a fine jackknife." 
Photo and story of soldier George H. Heffernan leaving Duluth for camp
Duluth News Tribune, December 18, 1918

So off he went to California, where he was issued his uniform and inducted into the American Expeditionary Force made up of men who were called Doughboys. All I know about his service came out in dribs and drabs over the years in conversations with him as I was growing up.

Upon arriving in San Francisco, the inductees were stationed at the Presidio, hard by San Francisco Bay's Golden Gate (long before the famous bridge was built), a facility that still exists but is no longer a military base. It's never been clear to me how he happened to be promoted so rapidly from buck private to sergeant, but that's what transpired. He was a man of some bearing, and I assume that was why he was quickly named a training sergeant for inductees who followed him into the service.

He took great pride in that, and it possibly saved his life. While the trainees were sent off to France to fight in the trenches, George stayed in San Francisco as a training sergeant. But not until the end of the war. Not quite.

Finally, his unit was mobilized to join other Doughboys in France. They were put on a troop train and transported from San Francisco to the east coast, arriving there just in time for the end of the war. On Nov. 11, 1918, at 11 o'clock in the morning the guns were silenced, and armistice was declared. The war that didn't end all wars had ended.

No France for George. Rather, a sojourn into New York City with Army buddies as tourists (the only time he was ever there), and mustering out of the Army some time later followed by a return to Duluth and civilian life. America was only actively involved in "The Great War" for about a year-and-a-half, but some 117,000 American service men had been killed, and tens of thousands more injured, many with what we now refer to as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

For my father, it meant returning to Duluth and his job, and some years later marrying my mother and having two sons, the youngest being me, born at the outbreak of World War II. By then, George was too old to serve again. In our home in Duluth's West End he placed his old uniform on a sturdy hanger and hung it on a nail in a dark corner of our basement.

There it remained all my early life and later, until we broke up the old homestead after my mother died in 1983. George had died in 1971 and was buried beneath a government headstone honoring his military service. 

When we emptied out the house, I took his uniform to my home, and later to two subsequent residences. Then, cleaning out the garage of our current home a couple of years ago, I found it, packed away in a box, a deteriorating, moth-eaten garment unsalvageable for any use such as in a museum.

So on that day, I took a scissors and cut off his sergeant stripes and the metal buttons, stowed them with other family memorabilia, stuffed the tattered tunic and trousers into a plastic bag and put it in our garbage bin to be hauled away with the rest of our trash.

By James Montgomery Flagg, 1917
Source: Wikipedia
The 100th anniversary of the start of American involvement in that war set me reflecting again on my father's proud service during that conflict, even though he escaped combat. A charter member, he spent decades actively involved in the American Legion, founded by World War I vets.

But not quite all of that century-old uniform was hauled off that day. I have the hat, the Smoky Bear-style hat (seen in the picture of young George accompanying this column), part of the standard Army uniform in that era. I'll never part with that. Or these memories.

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