WWI letters document a soldier’s service 

The Walter T. Ennenburg Post #358 American Legion in St. Ansgar turns 99 this year, and will celebrate with their annual birthday ball on March 10 at 7PM.

It’s been over one hundred years since the US entered the First World War in 1917, and with the living links gone (the last combat veteran passing away in 2011) we can now only relive that war through the documented memories and artifacts kept by the families and loved ones of those who served.

Artifacts like the letters of my great-great grandfather, Walter H. Hilgeman, who was 23 when he was drafted for service, shipped to France in 1917 and served for two years on the European front in the 318th Army Engineers.

His daughter, my great-grandmother Ruth Schmidt, who will be 98 this year, has kept a scrapbook filled with her father’s war letters to his wife Lillie.

The collection includes Hilgeman’s draft notification, instructions for service members on what to do and not to do aboard their transport ship (among them: No spitting on any deck, and no visiting between enlisted men of the Army and Navy), a mess ticket with 12½ days of shipboard breakfasts and dinners punched, a preprinted postcard announcing his safe arrival overseas, a postwar magazine of the 318th Engineers and a copy of a general order from Gen. John J. Pershing congratulating soon-to-be discharged soldiers of the American Expeditionary Force for their service.

In one of her first letters, Lillie Hilgeman wrote to her husband Walter, whom she only had been married to for less than two months before he received his draft notice.

She writes—  “Honey, just be happy as the day is long, for I know we shall some day be happy together again.’’

Hilgeman was nearly a victim to the influenza outbreak of 1918 (Spanish flu) and was one of the five thousand US troops placed in quarantine during the outbreak in the fall of 1918, which killed 50-100 million people worldwide.

He wrote in October 1918—“We are out in the woods in tents. … I am so weak, I can’t walk. … I just can’t walk … they call it Spanish flu. … I have no appetite.’’

A letter from November 1918 announced “WAR is over,” but his service would continue on. His letters detail little combat action, most of his service was after the war building and repairing roads in war-torn Germany, where he contracted tonsillitis and was shipped overseas to a Red Cross hospital in Virginia.

June 19— “I don’t know when I can leave. Many are gone. I can have ice cream every day. I am waiting my DISCHARGE!!!’’

The letters typically end with, “Love, Walter’’ or similar sentiment. The final letter ends: “Your own true husband forever, Walter Hilgeman.’’

After his return on July 3, 1919, the Hilgemans went on to have five daughters, including Ruth, who’s oldest son David was my grandfather.

Although the young men who went off to fight in what was then the greatest conflict of their time were given the moniker ‘The greatest generation’, Hilgeman’s service would be barely remembered. He lived the remainder of his life in Illinois, devoted to his farm and his family, and died of a natural causes in 1971.

Family members who knew him said he barely spoke of his time in the army, and never returned to Europe—“I don’t think he ever wanted to go back because he had seen so much sufferi ng there,’’ Ruth said. “He just didn’t want to talk about it. He was thankful to be in the States.’’

Hilgeman did not receive any wages for his service until the federal government sent a check for $742 in 1925. He never actively joined his local American Legion and his grave does not carry any marker of his service. If not for the saved correspondence between the two newlyweds separated by an ocean and a world war, the record of his service may easily have been forgotten to history, like the so many other casualties of that terrible conflict more than a century ago.

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