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Monday, October 26, 2015

When a Son Goes to War

There is little evidence that Caroline McCaskey maintained a close relationship with her remaining brother and sister, although both Emma and Henrich lived with their families in Ellwood City during their lifetimes.  My mother, certainly, never mentioned her Schweinsberg cousins.  Why? Who knows? A family falling out? Pressure from her husband to spend any extra time with his side of the family? Or did her younger brother and sister just get busy with their own lives in the city, conveniently forgetting about an older sister, living on a run-down farm and left widowed and responsible for eight daughters at a relatively young age? Whatever the cause,  I may get to play with my own theory if I put them into a novel.

In the meantime, I did find one small connection.  In the same little box that held my great-uncle James's Civil War letters, two newspaper clippings reveal a cousin who fought in World War I. Wilmer Schweinsberg was Henrich's oldest son, born in February 1895, just about the time that the young son of  Carolina and Joseph was dying of diphtheria. Did Wilmer become something of a replacement for the son the family lost? Maybe so. It's a novelist's privilege to imagine such a connection.

Wilmer Schweinsberg went to war at the end of 1917. By June 1918, he was a sergeant in the Medical Department of the 15th Field Artillery in northern France. The first clipping  contains a letter from him written to his parents on June 7, 1918.  He cannot tell them where he has been or where he is going, but later commendations suggest he was in the Champagne region northeast of Paris -- first at Chateau-Thierry and later at Soissons, which is probably the "very old  French town" he describes.

Most of his letter is concerned with the horrible treatment he sees the Germans handing out to French civilians. He witnessed whole trainloads of old men and women being deported, while other trains carry loads of "young and pretty girls, the favorite prey of the Germans." That whole scene came as something of a surprises to me. Normally I think of trains of deportees being a feature of the roundup of Jews in WWII. In this case, apparently, the reason behind the deportations was not so much religious as it was an attempt to simply get rid of the useless old folks who could not be put to work.

The girls, of course, were another whole story. Later in the same letter, Wilmer tells his parents that he and another chap have rented a room in a farmhouse. The girl whose room it used to be has been sent to Paris on this drive, while her mother is still minding the cow, chickens, and rabbits. The mother seems to be taking good care of the American boys, even providing them with a phonograph and a recording of the "Blue Danube" waltz. In return, he has given her his gas mask in case of attack.

A second small clipping, dated December 12, 1918, reports that Wilmer has been promoted, "becoming the First Sergeant of the Medical Department of one of the most famous regiments in Europe, the 15th Field Artillery."

 I'm happy to report that Wilmer survived the war and returned to Ellwood City, where he continued to work in various medical capacities until he died at the age of 66..  He married a nurse who lived to be 103. They had three sons, two of whom are possibly still alive.

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