“I am anxious to get back to the good old U.S.A.”
Those were the sentiments of Private James J. Dee in a letter he penned in France on November 30, 1918. The First World War was over. The 24-year-old miner-turned-soldier from Schuylkill County was ready to come home.
In his lengthy letter to his family, he discussed at length his service in France with 103rd Engineers Battalion. His service in the 28th Division, to which his unit was attached, made Private Dee immensely proud.
The Dee family in Girardville received their son’s letter in December and promptly had it published in the Shenandoah Evening Herald on December 26, 1918.
The letter provides an excellent first-person account of an American soldier’s service in the First World War. Below you’ll find the letter as it was originally published in the Herald in December 1918.
Girardville Boy Writes Interesting Letter of His Experiences in France
David Dee, of Girardville, is in receipt of a letter from his son, Private James J. Dee, Company D, 103rd Engineers, which is very interesting and will be read and appreciated by the Herald’s thousands of readers. The letter is dated Famarshe, France, November 30th and in part follows:
Dear Parents: – We had a nice dinner for Thanksgiving, as we are in a small village about twenty miles from Metz. We are unable to tell when we will get home but I am anxious to get back to the good old U.S.A.
Now that we are allowed to tell of the big events over here I will try and relate a few. When we landed in Liverpool May 31st we received a great reception as we paraded the streets. The people went wild about us. We boarded small passenger cars and rode through England and landed in Dover the same night. The city was darkened on account of airplanes going over London. We stopped at a rest camp for two days and then left Dover and boarded a ship across the channel which took about two hours and we landed in Calais, France, where we saw the first German prisoners, and that same night we saw our first air battle and I thought it was the prettiest sight I ever saw.
We rested there about four days after which we left by train for a training camp in Bebbrune. We pitched our dog tents there and trained about three weeks. We had an Englishman instructing us on the bayonet exercise and we went through some hard drilling. We left that place by train and rode two days in box cars, forty of us in a car, piled on top of each other. We could not sleep. We finally landed in a place called St. Martin. There I met a fellow that knew Dave Gallagher, who was later killed in the service, and asked him to tell Dave I was asking about him.
We started to hike the next morning and went about 30 miles when we came to a place called LaFerte and we stayed there about a week and then we left for Romandy, across the Marne, June 28th. That was our first day under shell fire. We used to swim in the Marne every day. We started work at night digging trenches. We walked about five miles every night to work and everything went well until July 4th. About two o’clock in the morning “Jerry” sent some big shells over at us, and you ought to see us duck. Two of our men were wounded and a French sergeant was killed. That was our first real experience under shell fire, but it was nothing to what we got later. We left there about a week afterward and went to a town named Les Roche, and started to dig trenches up on Chateau-Thierry hill. We were almost finished with this when we were sent to reserve.
On the 14th of July, a French holiday, we were assigned to their trenches and were told to hold them. About 11:40 we came out of the trenches and our mess came along and we had a big beef steak sandwiches, and after eating them we lay down on the field to rest, when the Germans opened up every gun they had and their shells bursting all around us and we ran for the trenches. “Jerry” also shot gas over and we put on our masks and kept them on until 7 o’clock the next morning. We had seven men killed that night, and 60 wounded and gassed. That was his big drive for Paris and we were right in it. The Germans failed, however, because three days later our boys counterattacked and kept driving them back every day.
We moved up further and stayed in Chateau-Thierry and put the first bridge over the Marne River about seven hours after the Huns were chased out. We had the French engineers working with us there.
We had some nice homes in Chateau-Thierry. We had beds to sleep in and a piano playing every night and we had a good time the week we were there. We left there and went up further to Mont St. Pierre, where the town was a complete wreck, only stone piles remaining. We slept in dug outs and could see air battles every few minutes. We filled up shell holes for a few days and then moved to some woods where we were to attack and take a hill and we got hand grenades and all ready to go into the Huns when word came they did not need us, that our infantry took it, so we hiked all that night through a dark woods which the Germans were shelling but did not come close enough to hit us, and got to another wood at 7 o’clock in the morning which we were to go through and have some bayonet fighting with the Huns for two hours.
We went through with our bayonets fixed but there were no Huns there and we were glad they were going back, and we went to a town called Fresnes. We were to put a bridge over the Oris River while they were shelling the town all day. Lieutenant Colonel Fletcher was killed there. I saw him after he was killed. There was a good many of our infantry got it there from machine gun nests, but they chased the Huns out. From there we went up to a ravine where we remained two weeks. We were putting up barb wire by night. We had a few men hurt there, as we had some job.
One day we left for Fismes to put a bridge across the Vesle River and going up were shelled all the way. One of our Lieutenants and a Corporal got hurt but we got up alright.
That night when we arrived our lieutenant said the bridge had to go across the river at any cost, and we thought our time had come to say goodbye but were satisfied it was for a good cause. We went down and were in the front line with the infantry and the woods were full of German snipers. If you put your head up over the road they would fire at you. WE got pretty near down to the river when they put an awful barrage over and that was the night I was gassed. I was very sick and vomited freely. John Feeney took me up to the dressing station and the next day I left for the field hospital, and later heard Vincent McCannon and another corporal were killed that day. I was in the hospital about six days when I felt pretty good and asked if I could go back to my company and they left me go. I went back and about three after when they drove the Huns to the Aisne River, we were relieved by the French and we hiked about 50 miles.
We went to a town near Dormans and there I met Pat Connell and Harry Weller and we had some good meals with Harry Weller’s company. He is alright, as he and Pat don’t get near the lines. They are always about 20 miles back. Harry is a mechanic on the trucks, a good job. Pat Connell is with the ordinance and also had a good job. We were there about a week when we hiked to Dormans and boarded trucks and rode all night and next day landed near the town of Surmarje. We slept there in a barn about a week and then left about 8 o’clock at night and hiked some 20 miles until four the next morning when we stopped at a woods and had just laid down to sleep when it commenced raining. We were too tired to pitch a tent and just lay there in the rain.
We remained there all day and that night started again on a hike and kept it up for four nights until we came to a woods near the Argonne Forest, and all thought we were in for a rest, but found we were at another front and heard the big guns roaring. That was September 26th when the big drive started in the Argonne Forest and maybe our big guns didn’t shout that night. You would wonder how a Hun could live in such a barrage as we put over. Our tanks went over the top and the infantry behind them and we followed.
We were cutting wire and fixing roads and filling up shell holes. That was some great drive. Our boys made a clean sweep until they hit Aprement and they were up there past the flanks and had to wait until the flanks caught up, so “Jerry” tried to counterattack but he lost about 1500 men while we lost a good many men. There were five Americans lying side by side, dead. It was a shame to look at them, but there were more Germans than Americans. We had to watch our step or we would tramp on the Germans.
We stayed in a German theatre there for two days. They had a piano and stage and a moving picture machine. Our company got the machine, yet a couple of days later we got relieved and felt sure we would get a rest, so we left and hiked about 15 miles, and then got on trucks and rode to Pagay Toul, about two days ride. We were there for a week.
I attended church and got a bath and clean clothes. We left there and went to Aulnair. We were there about a week when we came to the town we are in now. We are here over a month. When we first came we got a job putting up barbed wire in No Man’s Land which was some job. We met a couple of German patrols while there and had only one boy from Pottsville wounded over the heart with a machine gun bullet.
We worked almost two weeks and nearly completed the job, November 10th, when our infantry made a drive and we kept at it until 11 o’clock the next day when the armistice was signed.
I am more than glad it is over as you can imagine what we went through. Our division did its bit and I am proud to be a member of the 28th Division.
With love to all, your loving son,
Private Dee returned to the United States in April 1919 and was mustered out of the service one month later. He returned to his family in Girardville and returned to the coal mines of Schuylkill County. He died in September 1948 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Featured Image: American soldiers in trenches in France (Library of Congress)