By Diane Sagers, with Angelyn Hutchinson and Christine Armstrong
April 6, 2017, marks the centennial of the entry of the United States into World War I. Millions of young American men registered for the draft, and nearly five million of them answered the call to duty. About 116,000 American military died during that war—nearly half of whom died before they reached France, victims of the Spanish Flu Pandemic that swept the world, killing millions.
At home, Americans held divided opinions about United States involvement in the war, but all shared the uncertainties it created. Harry Nelson, a 20-year-old first-generation American, married his sweetheart, Eudora Eschler, on March 6, 1918; then, just six days later, he boarded a Union Pacific train in Salt Lake City, Utah, for San Antonio, Texas, and army life. Army food has never been hailed as fine cuisine, and the canned corned beef, canned tomatoes, and bread that made up the “doughboy” diets en route proved the point.
His bride suffered the uncertainties of war brides everywhere. Once her soldier was overseas, Eudora heard nothing from him for months—never knowing if he was dead or alive. Finally, she received a stack of letters that the Army had held back to prevent enemy interception.
Nelson’s unit trained in France and was finally headed to active duty when the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918. The Spanish Flu pandemic had raged among the soldiers, and although Henry helped care for the sick and dying, he was spared from becoming infected.
Separation was difficult for soldiers and their families. Potts recalled that as he boarded the train to leave, “Mother was brave about it and kept her control high, as long as I was present at least. Her grave was five months old when I returned home. As I experienced the war then and as I reflect back on it now, it seems that the hardships and the experience of the battlefield were too much for any man to endure. Then I remember the mothers, wives, sweethearts, children, and dads who could but wait and pray and wonder. Surely no soldier went through a greater hell than those we loved and left behind.”