Letters home from a World War I Jonesborough native

Zach Vance • Nov 25, 2018 at 6:00 AM

Considering this month marks the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended the World War I, I decided it was a perfect time to scour the archives in hopes of finding some insight into what life may have been like for a young serviceman, particularly one from Washington County.

That’s when I came across Sgt. James Morrison West, whose records can be found by searching the Tennessee Virtual Archive’s World War I Gold Star Records.

Born in Jonesborough on Oct. 18, 1892, West soon moved to Morristown with his parents and two brothers at the age of 12. He graduated from Morristown High School in 1912 and enrolled at Maryville College, where he earned a degree from the electrical school and went to work as a telephone expert.

While his records did not reveal how he ended up there, he ultimately enlisted in the U.S. Signal Corps Company 5, 409th Battalion in Detroit, Michigan, in June 1917.

Before leaving, West wrote a letter to his parents, Mr. and Mrs. J.A. West, while training at Monmouth Park in Little Silver, New Jersey. His letter was published by an unknown newspaper, possibly the Morristown Republican, and a clipping of that newspaper, titled “James West at Monmouth,” was included in his Gold Star records.

“We are still here, all ready to move and expecting our orders at any time. Such is the uncertainty of war, none of us know where we will go or when — but France is the general opinion,” the letter begins.

After describing a “show” his camp put on for the locals in Long Branch, New Jersey, he wrote:

“I see from The Morristown Republican that the fair is this week so guess you are looking forward to it. Wish I could be home for it. Also see that the fellows, who were drafted are leaving this week. They gave the draft army in Detroit a big send off, 30,000 from there. One of my friends writes me that most of the telephone fellows are being drafted, so I guess they were disappointed in thinking that telephone work would give them exemption.

“Everybody here is expecting the war to end in a short time — evidently there is a crisis at hand, but I think the Kaiser (German emperor) is feeling out for a temporary peace and I don’t think the Allies will ever consent to anything less than a Germany democracy, which means that Kaiser will lose his power. Uncle Sam, I know, won’t consent to anything less than that. For a temporary peace, that is leaving the German government as it is — would only give the Kaiser time to regain strength for another war.”

He concluded by stating, “There is one thing certain, when Uncle Sam gets a million or so soldiers on the field in France, something is going to happen...”

Four months after enlisting, West guessed right as he left for France on his 25th birthday.

A second newspaper clipping, featuring another of West’s letters, was likely published sometime during the spring of 1918, as West noted the date as being Easter Sunday.

In it, West mentions to his father how busy he’s been moving from place to place by train.

“This French train service is what gets a fellow’s goat. In their methods of switching, they always carry a mixed train of box cars and coaches, mostly all box cars, they do more backing up than they go forward, any way it took us just about 10 hours to make 60 miles,” West wrote.

“We stopped at one of the towns for dinner and were fed at an American Red Cross station. The waitresses were Americans and believe me, it sure seemed good to talk to an American lady again. We hardly know how to talk to them after jabbering French so much.”

West later described the Frenchmen he encountered as “being greatly interested in both (the Americans’) methods of work and games.”

“They should be for they certainly don’t know the modern methods, every thing back here reminds me of the ancient history I used to study in school,” West wrote, later calling the French very sociable and hospitable people who treated the Americans “royally.”

“The more I see of this part of the globe, the more I appreciate the fact of being an American citizen,” he stated.

He later continued, “You are right about them being a big bunch of soldiers over here, more than any one in the States would think. It is certainly a big task to supply an army on the front. It is said it takes three men back of the front for every one that is on the fighting line, so you can form a little idea of what a tremendous amount of work falls on the different branches of service such as the engineers, signal corps, etc. Uncle Sam is constructing railroads, telephone lines, training stations, hospitals, etc., as fast as possible with the available men and material.”

He concluded his letter with “Give my best regards to my friends and don’t worry any about me, for I will be back with you before many ‘moons.’ Best love to all.”

West died on Oct. 5, 1918 in Aix Les Bain, France, of pneumonia.

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