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Coming Home from War Armory Artifacts & How in The World Did That Get Here Series

At the 11th hour of the 11th day, of the 11th month in the year 1918, the guns of the First World War finally fell silent. There are a number of places on the Internet where you can hear a recording made of that fateful moment.

I have listened to this recording many times and every time, two things always stand out to me. First, the firing of the guns does not abruptly end but simply withers away with fewer and fewer explosions being heard until they just are no more. Secondly, and more impotently, within seconds of the final shots being fired, it is said that birds began singing as if signaling an end to the killing and a return to life.

Within months following that event, American soldiers began returning home from the war. Among them were many Wabash County residents. Boys and young men who just a few years earlier had left their homes and farms, enlisted to fight because it was their patriotic duty to their country just as their grandfathers had done during the Civil War and fathers during the Spanish-American War. With fanfare and parades, they went off for what was sure to be, in many minds, a grand adventure.

Now, in early 1919, they were returning home to what they hoped would be a normal life. One of the soldiers from Wabash County that went to fight in the First World War one was Wilber Henry Thomas of Lagro Township. Born April 23, 1896, Thomas enlisted as a private in the Heavy Field Artillery of the Indiana National Guard at Wabash, IN on October 5, 1917. He was just 21 and had lived his life until then as a farmer. Assigned to the Headquarters Company of the 139 th Field Artillery of the 38 th Infantry Division, he was trained at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, IN, Camp Taylor in Kentucky, and Camp Shelby in Mississippi. It was here that the 38 th Infantry Division gained the nickname “The Cyclone Division” because of the tornado that struck the camp while the division was training there in 1917.

In September of 1918 the 139 th , along with the rest of the 38 th Division, was in Hoboken, New Jersey where, on October 17, 1918, they sailed for Liverpool, England. Arriving in Europe during the closing days of the war, the division was broken up to fill vacancies in units already in combat. Two days shy of two months after leaving the United States, Wilber H. Thomas sailed for home on December 15, 1918, arriving back in Hoboken, New Jersey on the 23rd . Continuing his service duties at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis, the now corporal Thomas was discharged from the service on January 16, 1919. His service record indicates that he was returning to civil life as a farmer in Lagro, IN, in the county of Wabash. One of the boys was finally coming home.

One hundred and four years later, while cataloging and preserving some World War I uniforms, I discovered in our museum collection a beautiful Model 1912 Tunic (soldier’s service coat/jacket). This was the normal uniform coat used by soldiers in World War I and although a newer version, the Model 1917 Tunic, had been developed by the time troops were being sent to Europe, issues with supply and manufacturing of so many uniforms caused the Army to use the surplus of uniforms available to them. The uniform is made with four patch pockets, a standing collar where collar discs were worn (one marked with the US, the other with crossed cannons), a fully lined interior, and two tapering epaulettes/shoulder tabs. The Model 1912 is easily identified by the double row of stitching approximately three inches from the bottom of the cuff. Buttons are the rimmed style with eagle and the material is a high quality, tightly woven wool that looks like it just came off the manufacturing line. Sewn onto the right sleeve shoulder of the tunic is the solders rank insignia, two subdued color stripes signifying a corporal. On the shoulder of the left sleeve is the insignia of the 38th Infantry Division.

Comprised of National Guard Units from Indiana, Kentucky and West Virginia, the division was demobilized in 1919 but reconstituted in 1923. Today the Division is still in existence and continues to be comprised of National Guard Units from the Midwest. A couple inches below the division insignia is a red chevron which is the “Discharge Stripe” or “Honorable Discharge Stripe”. Its purpose was to identify Army and U.S. Marine Corps personnel after they had been mustered out of service. Soldiers had three months to wear their uniform after being discharged without a red discharge chevron. After that, the person wearing it could be charged under the National Defense Act with the offense of impersonating a soldier, which carried a fine not to exceed $300, imprisonment not exceeding six months, or both. If a soldier never wore the uniform again, the discharge chevron did not have to be sewn on.

Finally, on the lower left sleeve is a light blue “War Service Chevron”. Adopted in May 1918, War Department General Orders No. 53 established that this chevron was to be awarded to any soldier, sailor and Marine who had served for less than six months overseas in the Theater of Operations. Although this item is a beautiful museum piece, what makes this particular soldier’s tunic special is not military but does bring to life the soldier who wore it. Many years ago, I learned that when examining different artifacts, you should always check the pockets and it was in the lower right tunic pocket that an amazing piece of history was discovered. The kind of piece that makes the history of an artifact come to life. In that pocket of the tunic, that belonged to Wilber H. Thomas, was a letter dated January 11, 1919, just five days before his discharge from service, written and sent by his mother.What follows is a t ranscribing of the letter.

Corp. Wilber H. Thomas

Hdq. Co. 139 th F.A.

Ft. Harrison, Ind.

Saturday 10 a.m.

Jan. 11, 1919

Dearest Wilber! –

Will write you a note in a hurry for this is Sat. and couldn’t send any tomorrow.

Great headlines in yesterday’s Wabash paper says all Wabash boys will come

home Wednesday in a body. My, but that does sound good. You may rest assured we will be there in all our glory if we can find out the time. I suppose 8.40 in the eve. That

surely sounds great. They are planning a reception sometime in the near future if all the

boys who have returned. There never has been anything said about them compared to

what has been said of the 139th F. A. I don’t’ see what else could be said in the way of

praise and honor.

This is the finest day of the whole winter. I was just thinking If you were home, we would go to Wabash to see the sights there. I haven’t been to Wabash but once since you told me to tell Holderman have your suite picked out and he wasn’t in there. Papa is cleaning out the stables and hen house. He is going to clean up his butchering tools this P.M. I have my meat most all fried down. We are trying to get our work done so we won’t have much to do but visit when you get home. Georges are getting better. Aunt Florence sat up in bed yesterday. Herbert hasn’t been up yet but he is feeling off. He had it pretty bad and still has some fever. They didn’t have diphtheria as they were afraid. They are still quarantined. Nina isn’t a bit well. She is only up part of the time. We are just fine and looking forward with great joy when we can meet you in the Hupp.

Your Loving

Parents and Sisters

To bring the contents of this letter to life even more, folded inside of it was another letter.

Written on a small piece of note paper that had a printed boy and girl on top, was a series of squiggly lines, one after the other, as if done by a small child who was not able to write yet. It would appear that Wilber, nor his parents, were not the only ones excited about him coming

home from the war.

Wilber Thomas returned to the life of a farmer and lived for the rest of his life in Wabash County. On August 14, 1984 he passed away at the age of 88 and was laid to rest in Matlock Cemetery.


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