We Forget Today: The Cost of the War–Lt. Col. Whittlesey, 77th Div., and John Nelson, 1st Div

We forget today just what an impact World War One had on the lives of its participants and their families.  During these Centennial years it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of commemorations and plans to visit the battlefields again.  (The Webmaster just marched in NYC’s Veteran’s Day Parade with a group of WW1 Reenactors.)  Yet every now and then–sometime between Veterans Day and Thanksgiving, perhaps–it’s a fitting time to reflect on the human cost of the war.  Consider the two well-documented cases below; and remember also that every veteran, in his or her own way, had to cope with what they had witnessed in that terrible war.


Lt. Col. Charles W. Whittlesey, 77th Division, AEF

On November 29, 1921 the New York Times reports that this famous CO of the “Lost Battalion” committed suicide by jumping off the United Fruit liner Toloa en route from New York to Havana.  Just a few weeks prior he and other famous Medal of Honor recipients were Pallbearers for the Unknown Soldier burial at Arlington National Cemetery.  And just a few days earlier he celebrated Thanksgiving Day (Thursday, 21 November) with a prior law partner, Mr. Pruyn, and his family and “was in very gay spirits.”

However, the New York Times article contains portions of interviews with several friends and associates, who pointed out that “He had been deeply affected by the ceremonies at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington…”  Another interviewee added that he “had been besieged by wounded soldiers and widows of soldiers seeking aid.  He was very sentimental and these distressing appeals made him most anxious and worried.”

Thus, without telling anyone he purchased tickets for the liner, which left New York City on Saturday, 26 November; telling the housekeeper of the residence the night before that “I’m going away to be alone for a few days.  I am tired.”  En route he jumped overboard to his death, and his body was never recovered.



John Nelson, 1st Division, AEF

John Nelson is the father of James Carl Nelson, author of “The Remains of Company D:  A Story of the Great War.”  He was also a soldier in the 1st Division, AEF and was badly wounded near the Paris-Soissons Road on July 19, 1918, the second day of the Aisne-Marne Offensive.

John survived the war and he lived into the early 1990s.  Yet the wound that he suffered would torment him for the next 74 years.  The last chapter of the book states that “Within weeks of returning to his job as a painter, he filed a claim with the War-Risk Insurance Bureau, saying that because of his wound he was “not able to do a day’s work as beforehand, and nothing without suffering…”  It then outlines numerous examinations and numerous attempts by John to get financial compensation.  Finally, after an examination in April 1924 it appears that he was given a 47 percent disability rating that was ultimately reduced to 20 percent in 1933.  The compensation he received is not listed.

In the words of the author:  “And it wasn’t until after he was gone that I understood the lingering pain from that wound was no doubt the source of his sometimes gruff, even cranky, demeanor, an emotional state enhanced, perhaps, by an unspoken feeling that what he’d endured at the Paris-Soissons Road was underappreciated by us, and by a world that would come to regard the American part in the Great War as little more than a quaint crusade…”