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"DECEASED" - A Letter to a Soldier Arrives Too Late, 1918

World War 1 - "The Great War" or "The War to End All Wars"- was a bloody, awful affair. Estimates range from 15 to 22 million military and civilian deaths and about 23 million wounded military personnel between 1914 and 1918. The US entered the war in 1917, some three years after it started, yet more than 53,000 American soldiers were killed in action, another 63,000 died from sickness and accidents, and more than 204,000 were wounded (i).

One of those Americans killed in action was Marine Private James Young Simpson, Jr. who was serving in France in the 6th Regiment, 82nd Company of the American Expeditionary Force (AEF), He was killed in action June 6, 1918, during the Battle of Belleau Wood, which took place June 1-26, 1918.

According to military records, 1,811 Americans were killed and another 7,966 were wounded at Belleau Wood. German casualties are estimated to have exceeded 10,000 with more than 5,000 killed. General John J. Pershing, AEF commander, was quoted as saying, "The Battle of Belleau Wood was for the U.S. the biggest battle since Appomattox and the most considerable engagement American troops had ever had with a foreign enemy" (ii).

Private Simpson (Figure 1) was born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1896. His father was a doctor, and given that the 1900 US Census reported that three servants lived in the Simpson household, they were presumably quite well off.

After graduating from Westport High School (the school opened in 1907 and was closed in 2010), he enrolled at the University of Missouri. But in April 1917, the month the US entered the war, he enlisted in the Marines, completed his training at Paris Island, South Carolina, and arrived in France in October or November 1917 (iii), (iv).

The division to which his regiment was attached - 2nd Division, Regular Army - entered combat on June 1, 1918. How Private Simpson died on June 6, 1918, is unknown, but later in 1918, he was awarded the Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration bestowed on forces allied with France, for bravery. The letter to his family read:

Your son has been cited for conspicuous bravery and courage displayed in the attack at Belleau Woods, and in appreciation and recognition of such has been awarded posthumously the croix de guerre.

Sir, you have lost your son, but the memory that he died fighting and a hero should be a source of comfort to you and his mother.

Lieutenant Roberts, commanding the company, who was also a friend of "Jimmie" will send you the citation and medal.

With love to the father and mother of "Jimmie,"

Sergt. Karl T. Spencer

His father, Dr. James Y. Simpson, Senior, was quoted as saying, "The boy's desire was that if death came, it would find him fighting. My son died doing the greatest work he could, and I am glad it happened the way he desired" (v).

Private Simpson, killed in combat at age 22, was buried at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in Belleau, France (vi).

Two days after Private Simpson was killed in action, a friend of his, Frances Jones, started to draft a letter to him (Figures 4 through 9).

All I know of Frances is from what she wrote in the letter. She was originally from Kansas City and must have known James and his family. She went to Central High School in Kansas City (which was established in 1884 and continues in operation to this day). She was married to a man with the last name "Jones" - I can't make out his first name in the letter; it may have been Garton or Gaston - because the return address starts with "Frances" and is followed by "Mrs. J. G. Jones." I assume her husband was in the Army or in some way working for the military because she hopes he can take a leave of absence when she takes a trip back to Kansas City. They were living in or near Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia (vii). Based on a map of Camp Hancock I located, the return address - 1427 Anthony - was likely a building either in or near the camp. However, they hadn't been there long when Frances wrote the letter; just three weeks, having recently moved from White Plains, New York. My guess is she penned the entire letter - it seems to be in one person's handwriting - but the letter has a few anecdotes from Camp Hancock that probably came from her husband - but then again, maybe not. With all that information, plus the maiden names of three Frances's listed in the 1905 Central High School yearbook, I still can't find any further information on Frances Jones.

Frances finished the letter two days later on June 10, 1918, and mailed it from Augusta to France with 3-cents worth of postage (US Scott #501, a very common stamp). As a wartime measure, first-class postal rates were increased from 2- to 3-cents in November 1917, and those rates applied to mail sent within the US, to US possessions and to the AEF in France.

On the back of the envelope (Figure 3), Frances applied a small stamp with a red border and a single blue star in the middle. That's the "Blue Star Service Banner" that was designed and patented in 1917 by Capt. Robert L. Queisser of Ohio. The single blue star represented one family member serving in the military. That banner is used to this day. If the individual is killed in action or dies, a smaller gold star is placed over it (viii). The back of the envelope also has some postal markings, but I can't make those out.

The front of the envelope (Figure 2) has a variety of postal markings:

There is the circular date stamp cancellation from Augusta, Georgia for June 10, 1918. It's a flag cancel made by an American Postal Machine Co. cancellation machine.

Right below the flag cancellation there is a purple "DECEASED Verified by R. & F. Div. M.P.E.S. C.P.O. A.E.F." stamp. I checked with the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, and they had no information on "R. & F. Div.," but they suspect it was some sort of clearing house for casualties. "M.P.E.S." stands for "Military Postal Express Service." The MPES was established in May 1918 by the US War Department to handle military mail in Europe during World War 1. "C.P.O." stands for "Central Post Office" (ix).

There are two faint black "RETURN TO WRITER" stamps over Private Simpson's name.

Lastly, there are two black "DIRECTORY DIVISION M.P.E.S. A.E.F." stamps in the middle of the cover. The National World War I Museum and Memorial did not have any information on a Directory Division within the MPES.

There are also some written notations on the cover including a bright red, underlined "Deceased," a penciled "DEAD," the notation "Verified 8/1/18 376," and finally the signature of First Lieutenant F.I. Hicks. That would have been Frederick I. Hicks who was attached to the 6th Regiment's headquarters company.

I don't know what "376" stands for, but "8/1/18" was probably the date that Private Simpson's death was verified to the satisfaction of the MPES and when this letter started its journey back to Frances Jones. I'm sure Frances must have known of James's death before this letter came back to her, but it must have been a shock to have this arrive in her mailbox. If she re-read it, she must have been doubly shocked and grieved.

When she started the letter on June 8, she was well aware that fighting was raging in France. It was front-page news in newspapers around the country. She writes, "I suppose you are in this awful drive that is going on now. The papers have so much about the Marines. I do hope you have escaped being injured, but hate to think of the poor boys who have to suffer." Little did she know that James had already perished as she wrote those words.

She writes of the birth of James's cousin. "Aren't you anxious to see Harry's baby?," she pens. "Everyone says he looks like Harry and is an awfully good baby. I think he takes that after his Cousin James. Don't you think so?" She must have been devastated when she realized the two would never meet.

And then there is the way she closed the letter: "Take good care of yourself. Don't try to catch any bombs." How sad she must have felt re-reading that.

Here's a complete transcript of the letter:

Saturday - June 8 [1918]

Dear James:-

I have intended to write you a letter for sometime, but have just postponed it from day to day.

I received your letter yesterday. It was forwarded from New York. We were awfully glad to hear from you.

We came here to Augusta, Georgia (Camp Hancock) three weeks ago today. We have had some mighty hot weather since we got here but it is cooler now since we had a heavy rain. [?]ist at camp one of the men put a thermometer in the sand and it went to 147 degrees. Some heat. [End of page 1]

I suppose you are in this awful drive that is going on now. The papers have so much about the Marines. I do hope you have escaped being injured, but hate to think of the poor boys who have to suffer. Let us hope it will soon be over.

Aren't you anxious to see Harry's baby? I am. I haven't seen him either. He was born just four days before we left K.C., so I did not get over to see him. Everyone says he looks like Harry and is an awfully good baby. I think he takes that after his Cousin James. Don't you think so?

They say that the Jewish national anthem is "Onward Christian Soldiers." They also say that a whole division of Jews was ready to go to the front and and [sic] Irishman stopped them and would not let them go.

An Italian, Sleepo, is in camp here in Camp Hancock. He liked his company very much, but for some reason was transferred to another company. The next day, he went back to his old company carrying all [end of page 2] his belongings. When found, the lieutenant said, "Why, Sleepo, what are you doing here? You don't belong here. You must go back to your own company." Sleepo shrugged his shoulders and said, "No, me goin' to stay here. Me no like that other place." They have some funny experiences with foreigners.

Monday A.M. [June 10]

Well, as usual, I did not get a letter finished the same day it was started.

Yesterday's paper gave the Marines all the glory for repulsing the Germans. One of the papers quoted [end of page 3] one of the allies' generals as saying that if he had a whole division like those Marines, he would go right straight through to Berlin.

All the boys in camp here are crazy to go to France. I heard a lieutenant in the Ordnance say yesterday, "If I ever meet that civilian who told me I would be in France fighting within a month after I received my commission, I will surely make him suffer it." Another man said, "Gee! It wasn't going to take me but three weeks to get over there."

I haven't heard from your mother for about two months. I reckon you get all her letters, but I reckon you [end of page 4] need them more than I do, because I hear from the others in K.C.

It is almost eleven o'clock now, and I haven't had any breakfast and can't get lunch until half past twelve. I surely wish that time would come. There is a big plum tree just under one of my windows, but there is also a "culled [?] person" of ample proportions in the kitchen, so I think I shall remain hungry.

I think I will go back to K.C. for a couple of months sometime the first of July. I am trying to persuade my J.G. Garton to take a leave of absence and go with me, but I don't know what luck I will have. He has twenty-seven days coming to him.

If you will keep an order for candy and tobacco on the way all the time, some of us will try to use them and send something. I intended to send another box just as soon as I heard that you had received the one from White Plains, but, in the meantime, the order came out saying there would have to be a written order for each box sent. I told your Mother to send me the first extra order she had and I would [end of page 5] send you a few things.

There is a rumor that rents at home are going to be increased $10 or $15 a month. If so I see where my things will have to take a little trip to the storage warehouse.

We hear lots about Paris Island down here, but I haven't seen any Marines since I have been here.

I saw by the papers Sat. that Capt. Rufus Montgall of K.C. was killed in action. Did you know him? We were in Central High School together. He chummed with Richard Wiles. I did not know he was in the Army. Have you ever heard anything about Bill Doran? Milnor Paret is crazy to join, but is a little too young (x).

Write when you can. Take good care of yourself. Don't try to catch any bombs.

Lots of love Frances and J.G. Garton

(iii) The Kansas City Times, June 12, 1918, p. 6.

(iv) The Kansas City Star, June 26, 1918, p. 1.

(v) The Kansas City Star, September 23, 1918, p. 1.

(x) Capt. Rufus Montgall was born in Kansas City, Missouri in 1887 and was killed in action in France on May 30, 1918. Richard Wiles (1888-1933) of Kansas City claimed exemption from the draft for World War 1 because he had dependents (a wife and one child). William Doran (1895-1977) was an Army veteran of World War 1 with the rank of lieutenant. He lived most of his life in Kansas City. I can find no record of Milnor Paret of Kansas City (1898-1974) having served in World War 1.

Figure 1 - Private James Y. Simpson, Jr.

Figure 2 - Front of envelope.

Figure 3 - Back of envelope.

Figure 4 - Page 1 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

Figure 5 - Page 2 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

Figure 6 - Page 3 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

Figure 7 - Page 4 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

Figure 8 - Page 5 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

Figure 9 - Page 6 of 6 of the enclosed letter.

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