World War I letter from McKeesport veteran found 100 years after it was written
Only a week after World War I ended, an American soldier recovering at a hospital in France wrote to his mother in McKeesport that he hoped to be home by his birthday.
George S. Caldwell, then not quite 21, told his mother he was in good health, despite being shot three times, once in the wrist and once in each leg, according to a copy of the letter that surfaced 100 years later in a cluttered closet of a Pittsburgh sports memorabilia collector.
“We are getting good eats and am in fine health,” the letter reads. “You asked if I was wounded in the arm. Well, yes, I was wounded in the arm — the right wrist — it taking 12 stitches to close the wound. I got a little gas, but not enough to hurt me and shot thru (sic) both legs by machine gun. Wouldn’t it be great if I could be home for my 21st birthday.”
Deadly mustard gas was used by both sides during World War I.
Caldwell, highly decorated for bravery during World War I, wrote the letter on Nov. 28, 1918, from a base hospital in France. The war had ended on Nov. 11, 1918.
Mark Fatla, who doubles as the executive director of the Northside Leadership Conference, found the letter in an old scrapbook tucked inside a closet in his North Side home. He doesn’t remember where he got the scrapbook containing Caldwell’s letter. He said it likely caught his attention at a flea market or used book sale more than 20 years ago because it contained newspaper clippings from McKeesport High School’s state basketball championship in 1921.
“I collect old sports stuff, so probably all the old basketball clippings are why I picked it up originally,” Fatla said Tuesday. “I didn’t even know the letter was in the scrapbook until I went through it two Sundays ago.”
Caldwell, known as “Dewey” in his hometown, and about 28,000 other members of the Army’s 1st Infantry Division shipped out to France in June 1917 after guarding the United States border in Texas from raids conducted by Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa.
Caldwell received the Army’s Distinguished Service Cross and French Croix de Guerre for heroism during battle. He was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for action on July 18, 1918, near Soissons, France, while capturing a German artillery position that was inflicting heavy casualties, according to his military citation.
“In order to stop artillery fire, which was causing heavy losses in our ranks, Private Caldwell, with another soldier, rushed 300 yards to the front, attacked a machine gun strong point and a 77-millimeter artillery gun, captured the position and the gun, killed 2 and captured 13 of the enemy,” the citation read.
He wrote to his mom about the medals, noting the Croix de Guerre “entitles me to free admission to all places of amusement.” He also described his travels in France.
The 1st Division won the first major America battle at Cantigny in May 1918 and participated in fierce fighting during the battles of Soissons, St. Mihiel and the Meuse-Argonne, according to the First Division Museum at Cantigny Park website. From May to November 1918, the 1st Division suffered more than 20,000 killed, wounded and missing soldiers, according to the website.
“On the 28th of May the Americans went over the top and captured Cantigny from the Germans,” Caldwell wrote. “This fine work was done by the 28th Infantry and believe me I was on deck. Near Soissons we drove the Germans back 20 miles in four days. It was in this battle I received the French War Cross.”
He wrote that he was wounded in the legs during a battle in the Argonne Forest on Aug. 5, 1918.
“Well, mother this great war is over now and some of the boys have started home,” he concluded. “Believe me I expect to be on one of those boats soon.”
He signed it “with lots of love and kisses.”
In an earlier letter to his brother that was reprinted in an undated newspaper clipping found in the scrapbook, Caldwell said he had been in France for 16 months and was learning to speak the language. He said he felt lucky to be alive.
“Believe me, kid, I have learned to appreciate home and will be glad to stay there when I get back,” he wrote.
Caldwell returned and retired from U.S. Steel’s Christy Park Works in McKeesport, according to an obituary provided by Gail Waite, a researcher at the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center. He died on Nov. 18, 1961, at age 63 and is buried in the McKeesport and Versailles Cemetery. He was survived by his wife, Edith, and a son in Florida.
Fatla said he discovered the scrapbook and letter two weeks ago after deciding to clean out a closet at his North Side home. He said he intends to give it to the McKeesport Regional History and Heritage Center or another museum.
“I haven’t been in that closet in 20 years,” Fatla said. “The fact that this guy wrote this 100 years ago just floored me.”
Bob Bauder is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Bob at 412-765-2312, [email protected] or via Twitter @bobbauder.