Letters from Oregon Boys in France
Compiled by Mrs. Frank Wilmot 1918
Of especial interest are the following four letters, each coming from a member of one family to Mrs. Frederick E. Greatwood, 755 Talbot Road. Mr. F. E. Greatwood, the father of three sons, has been fighting for democracy since 1917—was himself wounded on the battlefields of France. One member of the family, Charles R. Parrott, writes a forceful letter to his friend, Charles Pye. He also is recovering from wounds received "over there" and expects to go back to the trenches at once. A second son, Royce Greatwood, is in the transport service of the U. S. Navy, and H. E. Greatwood is with the British forces in India.
On Active Service
Aug. 26, 1918.
It seems such ages since I heard from you last, but I suppose it is because we are moving about so much just now that it is difficult to get mails up. Our troops are doing so splendidly that it keeps us busy following them up; Heinie is getting his own and getting it badly. I am hooking forward to your next letter about Royce's visit. I got a letter from him telling me how he enjoyed being with you and what a good time he had. The little home he appreciated more than he had ever done before; and one has to rough it a bit, and then come back, to realize what a home really is. The poor boy has had quite an experience on U. S. S. President Lincoln, one that he is never likely to forget, and I am truly thankful that he has got through it so safely. We are continually on the move these days and have just come to this place and with our men advancing so splendidly we will never stay long in any one place. We could not have better weather for the offensive than we have had; the crops here look splendid and the work is all done by old men, women and boys; it is marvelous what is being done these days, everybody helping. It is a pathetic sight to see all these beautiful cities and villages and towns ruined, next to nothing remaining of them. I would like to see what the Huns would say if their towns were destroyed like these French ones have been. I don't think they will give us a chance, but will give up before that. I shall have much to tell you when I do get home which I can't do in a letter.
I do get so homesick to be back again but I don*t think it will be so very long before we are all back again. What a glorious day that will be. Egerton's time is getting very close now and be will soon be a full-fledged officer. He has written to apply for Outram's Rifles, Walter's old regiment.
With fondest love,
Fred. E. Greatwood.
Cadet College, Quetta, India
My Dearest Mother:
A big English mail came in on Saturday, but I did not get any letters from you. I may, however, get some tomorrow, as all letters from America are carefully censored in this country for some reason or other, and usually arrive later than the English letters. Granny says that father is now wearing a kilt and he finds it very comfortable and warm. It is rather funny that he should be wearing something, one would never expect for a moment that he would wear. This war seems to be going on for some time yet, and I hope to see some service before it is finished. I will be jolly fed up if I don't, as it will look as if I came out here to get out of it. I think this war will make a wonderful difference to the world. Every man is moving to different places in the world, and seeing life from many standpoints, and they are bound to go back more open-minded, and will not be content to stand any nonsense. Last Sunday, seven others and myself went to play tennis at General Wopshaw's house. We had some jolly good games and enjoyed it as this is the first decent tennis court we have played on since leaving England. It was a lovely house with a big garden full of roses and very well kept. There were four little native boys to collect the balls for each court, and they were dressed in green with a brown waist band. This country is so different from England, everybody has so many servants and can afford to keep a motor, horse, or motor-bicycle. Of course living has gone up considerable in India during the war, but not nearly so much as in England. We had an examination in drill this week, and it is nice to feel that at least one is finished with now. I made several stupid mistakes as nearly everybody did, but got on otherwise all right. We first had to take a squad of ten, in squad drill, then march on to a marker, detail an exercise in rifle drill, and finally an extended order drill. We finished our bridge in engineering, and made quite a good job of it. It is a jolly interesting job, and will come in useful later on. I took a photo of it and will send one if it is any good. On Wednesday we had a top hole Voluntary Ride and went for a long gallop over rough country for over three hours. We finally got into some cultivated land and about ten horses, including mine, fell over in ditches, but everybody fell clear. I must close now. With much love.
Ever your loving son,
An account of the sinking of the U. S. S. President Lincoln [May 31, 1918], written to Mrs. F. E. Greatwood by her son, Royce, who was radio operator on the ill-fated ship.
On the evening of May 29th, we were towed out of the harbor of ----, getting underway with a convoy of three other ships, and an escort of three American and one French destroyers.
The ships sailed out of the outer harbor in a long line through the narrow channel surmounted on one side by high cliffs, and on the other a rolling country of green fields and hedges, with numbers of small stone houses scattered along its shores. Going down the channel everything was prepared for sea, booms lowered, hatches and tarpaulins secured, life boats swung out for launching, gangways rigged in, gun and lookout watches posted, besides orders being issued for everyone to wear life preservers.
The shores of France quickly faded from view, and as soon as we were well out we changed our formation to a single column, with the President Lincoln and A ———— in the center, while the destroyers formed a protecting cordon around us, zigzagging back and forth.
Everything continued quiet and without incident during the night and days of the 29th and 30th; while on the latter evening the escort left us and we continued along in the same formation. The night of the 30th passed quietly with the extra submarine lookout watch going on at 3 a. m. and off at 7 :30 for breakfast, without reporting anything of incident. At this time we had traveled about 500 miles from the French coast. At 8:57 a.m., May 31st, shortly after changing course, a torpedo was seen to jump out of the water, some fifty yards from the ship on the port side, between the outer ship, the R ----- , and ourselves.
At the time I was standing in the radio room looking out of the port, talking to the chief electrician, and made the remark upon seeing a dark silvery object jump out of the water: "Look at the porpoise," but my opinion soon changed when I saw a long white streak heading straight for the forward part of the ship. Hardly had the bridge seen it, than they tried to bring the ship around; but she had no sooner started than two torpedoes hit together about a hundred and twenty feet from the bow, just forward of the bridge under number two mast, with an explosion that rocked and shook the ship in every beam, causing her to list heavily to port.
As soon as the "general alarm" sounded everyone proceeded to their battle stations at the utmost speed, but without confusion; I, taking charge of the radio room, sending all other men to their stations, except Neuert, my first class operator. The main transmitting set was immediately started, preparatory to sending an S. O. S.; but hardly had the motor generator come up to speed than a second torpedo hit aft with a violent explosion; power went off, lights went out and the motor generator stopped. Neuert immediately went down to the engine room to see whether it was possible to get any power, but came back with the report that the engine room was flooded and everyone had left their stations.
Having been notified from the bridge to send an S. O. S., we shifted to a small emergency coil set and began broadcasting distress signals. It became very difficult to hear or even pick up any stations with our receiving set, owing to the roar of the boiler exhaust, located above the radio room; finally we heard one of the other ships sending out our calls, so felt sure help was coming to us sooner or later.
The ship by this time was listing heavily to port, but gradually righted herself to an even keel, which made it appear as if there was a chance of her remaining afloat; so the captain "belayed" the order to "abandon ship." As the ship began to list heavily to starboard, settling in the stern, the order to "abandon ship" was again given, all lifeboats being launched, first having the sick patients placed in them dressed in rubber life suits; after which the boats were pulled away from the ship's side. Fourteen of the sixteen boats were successfully launched, two being blown up in the explosion of the torpedoes, one aft and one forward. The men left on the ship after the life boats had pulled away, immediately began cutting the lashings of the life rafts and launching them, sliding down life lines onto them, singing and paddling away with whatever wreckage they could pick up for a paddle. It reminded one more of a Sunday school picnic than a race with death, to see them racing one another and singing.
During this time the gun crews had remained at their stations. the forward gun's crew firing at any object that could be seen in the general direction of the submarine in the hope that she might come to the surface; but they finally had to abandon their stations when the water came up to the guns.
During this time I was in the radio room trying to establish communication with the spark coil set, but finally had to give it up when the ship began to lurch violently to starboard, making it hard to stand up. I then dispatched Neuert, telling him to get over the side, and I followed a few minutes later on hearing the crash of falling crockery in the wardroom, which acted as a signal for me to run for the boat deck, where I found Neuert standing. After telling him to grab a life line I started over the side, coming face to face with Lieut. Mullen, assistant engineer, who came out of B deck, bawling us out for not having left the ship before. Half sliding and half running I went over the side fully dressed, shoes, cap and glasses on, and started swimming toward a life raft some 12 feet away. When six feet from the side, the ship slid under, sinking stern first, with a peculiar hollow, hissing sound, and a heavy rumbling roar as the water came in contact with the boilers. There was no suction as the ship went down, except for setting up a wave that tended to force everything from its side, forcing me onto a life raft on which a Y. M. C. A. secretary, a Mr. Hazard, was sitting.
All that could be seen when I turned around after getting in a sitting position on the side of the raft, was part of the funnel, which had broken loose and floated for about thirty seconds before sinking, and in the distance a trail of smoke of the fast disappearing hulls of the other ships of our convoy.
After floating around aimlessly for about an hour, a dark object was sighted coming over the horizon, which was first taken for a sailing vessel, but soon merged into a large submarine, which upon nearer approach was seen to have her forward gun trained on us; a member of the gun crew was seen to approach the gun and open the breech. This took all the heart out of us, believing that our last hour had come, having heard so much of what German sub-officers had done to English crews when caught in such a predicament. Some of the chaps began cutting the painters holding some of the rafts together, so in case they did open up on us they would not have such a large target to fire on.
While the submarine was coming up, the captain rowed to all the rafts and life boats, directing the men in case they were questioned, to say that the captain had gone down with the ship. As few of the life boats and rafts were secured together, we were all scattered over a pretty wide area, and some had drifted quite a distance away from the main body. The submarine after circling us several times picked up one man from a raft which had drifted a considerable distance away from the rest, taking him aboard; they took him below, giving him a good drink of hot coffee and cognac. The submarine then hailed the boat on which Lieutenant Isaacs was leaning over the gunwale with his gold rating stripes showing plainly, he not having followed the example of the rest of the officers in taking off their blouses and caps. Ordering them alongside, they ordered him aboard, putting the seaman off the life raft back in the boat. Casting off, they began cruising among the life rafts inquiring for the captain, who, of course, no one had seen, also taking pictures of us. They came within fifty feet of the raft on which I was sitting, giving me a good opportunity to have a look at the "sub," besides having my picture taken in the bargain.
The submarine appeared to be about 215 feet long, constructed something after the shape of a whale, with a large conning tower in the middle, which was about twenty feet high and thirty feet long. This was divided up into three parts: the forward part, the entrance to the conning tower, the middle part consisting of a weather screen, and a small bridge on which a couple of young German officers were standing with their captain. Back of this came the after section, a large platform with a railing around it on which a number of very grimy members of the crew were standing. From each side of the conning tower rose two pedestals through which the periscope was operated. To the tops of these were mounted two wires running fore and aft, used for the wireless. Forward of the conning tower, on the main deck, was mounted a 5.9 inch naval gun, while aft, was a gun of smaller caliber, probably a 4.2. Two water tight doors large enough for a man to pass through, were fitted on both sides of the conning tower for use of the gun crews. From the after platform of the conning tower, a small flagstaff was fitted, from which fluttered the "Heinie" ensign.
The crew of the "sub" appeared to be very excited about "getting us," laughing and joking at our helpless predicament in the water. On the whole, they treated us square, but we were mighty glad to see them make a final cruise around, and head for the horizon, disappearing for good.
As soon as the "sub" made her final departure, the life boats began to pick up the men off the rafts, a number of which were badly exhausted and suffering from exposure, having left the ship with practically no clothing. After floating around for four hours on a life raft up to our hips in water, we were picked up by the navigator's boat, which was soon loaded to full capacity (43). The captain then issued orders for all boats and rafts to be rounded up to go to a rendezvous, about two miles from where we were drifting. After getting sixteen life rafts in tow we started towards the rendezvous, taking turns at rowing, but owing to everyone being violently seasick our progress was very erratic and slow, taking us four hours to catch up with the others.
The boats and rafts were all secured together for the night, so none could float off; emergency rations were broken out, consisting of hard chocolate, which crumbled from age when touched, hard-tack soaked with salt water, and soup powders with no hot water to cook it with, and half a cup of water. Of this, few, if any of us partook, all being too seasick to think of eating. As darkness came on, two lookouts were put on watch in each boat, a lighted lantern secured to an oar was hoisted to attract attention, while conston lights were burned at intervals. As the night advanced the wind began to rise and the sea became rougher, causing the boat to pitch and toss. As soon as the lookouts were posted, the rest of us settled down on the bottom of the boat as best we could, trying to keep warm by leaning against one another; sleep was out of the question with our wet clothes, no shoes, and nearly frozen.
At about 11:30 p.m. a light was sighted, which revived our spirits. All lights and flares that we could lay our hands on were shown. These signals were responded to by a searchlight being turned on us, and a few minutes later a dark object at high speed appeared through the darkness, stopping very close to the rafts. An American voice was heard to give the command for all lights to be extinguished. As we recognized an American destroyer, all hands gave a rousing cheer. Being uncertain whether the "sub" was still lurking around, the captain of the destroyer would not pick us up until all lights were extinguished; then the work of embarking started, one boat at a time going alongside the weather-side and discharging. The weather being pretty rough our boat waited until a good opportunity presented, then went alongside, I, manning a boat hook to keep the boat from being capsized. Each chap made a jump for the deck as the boat came up on the crest of a wave, and willing hands pulled him aboard. A miss meant certain death by being smashed against the side, so you may well imagine we all took extra precaution to land safely. The boat after being our refuge for eighteen hours was cast adrift, disappearing in the gloom. After reaching the deck we could hardly walk from weakness and cold, but were directed to the engine room to thaw out. After thawing out, hot coffee and sandwiches were served to everyone, clothes broken out, and the crew placing practically all they owned at our disposal. The rest of the night was spent doubling up with chaps in their bunks, while the less fortunate resorted to the decks and other available places. The ———— picked up all the men from the boats, while the ————, which had come up while she was doing this, searched for the rafts which had drifted away. At 4 a. m. they were located and all men taken aboard, after which we got under way, heading back for France. On the second day we ran short of oil, necessitating another destroyer coming out and fueling us, besides bringing provisions, which were getting very low. A number of moving picture men came out on her deck to take pictures of us in our rags and dirt. Arriving in ————, we were taken alongside the ————, a troop transport, and embarked for the States.
Out of 517 men on board, only 26 were lost, and one taken prisoner. All sick cases, including two paralytic soldiers, were saved.
May 3d, 1917.
Dear Friend Pye:
Many thanks for papers, which I received the night we were relieved, after practically twenty-one days of the hardest fighting of this war; war to the teeth, for Germany never thought she could lose Vimy Ridge and consequently she "came back" for it with her legions of men, with gas, incendiary shells and machine gun. The bullets of the latter were all "turned," making "dum dums" of the worst kind. However, do you think they could drive back the Canadians? No, sir! It was glorious the way the boys stuck; and, not only stuck, but went through ‘em again and gained a further objective. For some unaccountable reason we couldn't get relieved, and there we held, tired, hungry and thirsty, small in numbers, but as "game" as the boys who held Ypres. The French people idolize us; for they never imagined that such a natural fortress as Vimy Ridge could be taken, especially after they lost so many men in trying to retake it from the Germans. It was a fight, too, but the boys just went like hell, and the spirit carried us through. The view we got when over the Ridge was like looking down upon the "Promised Land." We wanted more, so away we go and back go the Germans, running like mad devils, some towards us with arms up, and others toward their own country! We "went over" four times, and each time we held our point, and today we are almost eleven miles from our old front line! Yes, we're remnants, true! but the spirit, man, is wonderful. I never felt the "soft side" until what was left of us were met by a band and played out, and then one's soft chord was reached; chums gone, faces missing, but we were welcomed back to the huts and cheered and cheered again and again.
The last letter I wrote you we were having two days' rest and when we went back again it's been the bloodiest battle of all, and one can say that, excepting the two days' rest, it's been twenty-one days' hard fighting. I got through without a scratch, but the gas has caught my stomach, lungs and eyes. "Heine" sent it over in shells, but it never stopped Canadians. I'll be all right after a few days rest, although it does make one cough all the time and vomit, too.
It was a treat to get the paper and I feel I must say a few words here in answer to Upton Brown who has a letter in on that date (March 26th.) He says he "heartily agrees with those ‘true-red-blooded Americans' who refuse to allow America to sacrifice her sons for England, etc.", or rather "for the benefit of England." I only wish to say that the British army today is made up of men of education, men who would never fight for any aggrandizement or world power, men who would never fight for commercial supremacy or for the subjection of smaller powers. No! the men of today can't be fooled that way; and I guess Upton Brown knows it, too. Consequently, we must be fighting for honor and we're paying the price. After knowing the way this thing started and the treachery of the Hun to the whole world, I can only say that such men as Upton Brown are not worthy of their country, and, in the least, are cowardly. After the long suffering patience of the American people, who to the whole world, it seemed, stood for insult after insult from the Hun, one can only come to the conclusion that Upton Brown is not a friend of his country and therefore, to my mind, should be watched. I only hope the American soldier does not come here and go through what we've gone through (may we be able to spare them that). Upton Brown says "Germany is giving Britain a dose of her own medicine." Now, let me see! When did Britain invade the smaller nations, rape and murder the people, burn down their cities, etc.? When did Britain, with all her naval power, ever keep any other people off the water? When did Britain close her doors of freedom, both her colonies and the Isles, to the down-trodden and persecuted German or Austrian, who wished to run away and seek protection from their own governments? When did the British army ever push back the German line and, when arriving at the dressing stations, bayonet all the wounded—and when did the British army ever crucify a German sergeant upon capture? (The latter two events both occurred at Ypres, the former in June, 1916, and the latter April, 1915.) When did the British army have French women in the dugouts of officers (as was found in the recent advance by the English division on our right) Some of our chaps were out on a patrol one night some little time ago and they came across an old dugout between the lines. On entering, they found thirteen English soldiers with their throats cut from ear to ear (as though by an artist). And Upton Brown says "That's our own medicine." Well! let me tell you right now that when we advance, the Hun howls for mercy and we give it to him. He goes back of our lines, get's hot food and is immediately taken out of the range of shellfire. Three nights ago, after night and day fighting, when we were so tired and fatigued that we didn’t care whether we lived or not, when we slept as we walked, I was ordered on a party to bring in four wounded Germans. We dressed their wounds and carried them on stretchers through the German shellfire and gas shells, back to our transports for hospital. Ask any German prisoner today who his friend is and he'll tell you at once "the British." After knowing what I do amid realizing the horrors of "Prussian All Power Ambitions," I would rather be a savage of early North America, than a Prussian or a friend of the Prussian. No! sometimes we pity their soldiers, for they are made to do their barbarous deeds. Many of them have good hearts and are glad to get away from their war-lords, for the orders they have to carry out are revolting to them even. Upton Brown's place would be with the Prussians, and there on the bloody battlefields of France, he would, like the German soldier, soon realize the difference between British chivalry and German kultur. This is not the place to exaggerate or to fabricate, for battles of today sober us down to truth, and, furthermore, life is terribly uncertain. We curse war; it*s horrible, it*s something that cannot be imagined by anyone but the shell-shocked and suffering soldier. Man! do you think this great democratic army of Britain, Canada and other colonies would suffer this just for the coffers of England? No!!! those days are past and, as terrible as it is, there's not a man among us who doesn't realize that we're here to crush down a murderer as it were. Let Upton Brown think before he again rashly infers in his letters that this army of educated men are simply the tools of the money-grabbing classes. He’s not like the Americans who are fighting side by side with me. There's quite a few, who are ’varsity men, and one of my chums, who is an old West Pointer. Like me, they would rather die in France than see the Hun on top—and, believe me, we're all terribly anxious to live for we're young and life is promising. In conclusion, let me remind Upton Brown that Germany torpedoed a hospital ship with wounded German prisoners and that the British rescued them. And again, after that small scrap in the channel, didn’t the British sailors rescue the drowning Germans? " ’Tis not what you do, lad, that makes your name, but did you play the game?"
And now I must close. We're out for a rest. It's glorious weather, hot and so enjoyable after the awful winter. I don't mind if you publish parts or whole of this letter, as I would like Upton Brown to get a line direct from a man who has seen and been through the war of today, as, maybe if he only saw a few such horrors, he would think with a mind that's unbiased and that wishes good for all.
Kindest regards to yourself and friends.
Yours very sincerely,
Charles R. Parrott.