A First-hand Account of the Silver Greyhounds Overseas Courier Service by Captain Wallace F. Hamilton and His Daughter Felicita Hamilton Trueblood
By Felicita Trueblood
The Silver Greyhounds and My Father
During the WWI Centennial year articles have appeared in the media about the Silver Greyhounds, the Overseas Courier Service established in late summer 1918 to speed up the delivery of important communications between Washington, London, and Paris. The archives belonging to the commanding officer, Major Amos Peaslee, were recently donated to the State Department by Major Peaslee’s grandson. A portion of them is on display at the State Department’s Diplomacy Center.
My father, Captain Wallace F. Hamilton, happened to be Major Peaslee’s assistant. He had served in the U.S. First Cavalry, the horse cavalry that protected the U.S./Mexican border in Southern California. General John “Black Jack” Pershing was in command of this operation. When it came time to establish the courier service, General Pershing assigned the task to a trusted cavalry officer, General James Harbord, who chose my father to be a part of this special unit. He had been plucked from the front in late August 1918 and told he was needed for special duty. As he made his way from Chateau Thierry to the Services of Supply in Tours, he made drawings of his observations.
Dad was assigned to run the Paris office, responsible for getting the couriers and their pouches safely to and from trains and ships. Then, after the Armistice, he was responsible for all the transportation vehicles belonging to the Postal Express Service (PES), to which the courier service had been assigned.
My Father’s Scrapbook Stolen and Recovered
While unhappy about his assignment to a non-combatant post after all his military training, Dad soon realized there was adventure in his new mission and wrote an account of his time with the Silver Greyhounds in 1968. He sent it to Major Peaslee, who was very pleased with the manuscript and hoped my dad would publish it, including a never-before-seen statistical summary of the OCS activities through April 1919.
My dad recounts the inspiration for committing to paper his WWI experience as follows:
“I wrote this account of the Overseas Courier Service fifty years after the incidents themselves. My daughter’s curiosity sparked it. Her high school history class was concerned with World War I. Aware of this, her mother gave her a photo from my scrapbook of me with a group of Overseas Couriers in front of the Hotel Crillon, Place de la Concorde, Paris in December 1918. Scrapbooks and diaries were not encouraged in the Armed Forces at war but I was determined to keep my scrapbook. My daughter requested more information, as did her teacher. I looked over my scrapbook with its sketches, photos, and memorabilia and then turned to my typewriter to comply. I enjoyed the experience, as it provided a bond for a father whose daughter is 61 years his junior. Once launched by that Fay Lady of the Lake upon waters of romantic recollection, the adventures came very much alive.”
My dad passed away in April 1972 and the manuscript and artwork went into storage. His scrapbook from the war was stolen from our storage facility and returned to me many years later through a stroke of seeming divine intervention.
I knew my father was busy writing a manuscript, right up until his passing, but I was in college, studying literature at the University of California, San Diego, and recently married, so his scrapbook and various manuscript iterations went into storage. We subsequently lived and worked in Frankfurt, Germany, for 24 years and I had neither the time nor the inclination to take on this project, although it was always in the back of my mind. When we finally returned to San Diego and we were able to empty our storage unit, I found the box with the manuscripts but the scrapbook was nowhere. Our storage had been broken into at some point and I assumed that the scrapbook had landed in a dumpster since it wasn’t of any commercial value. I was so angry with myself for losing my most precious possession, as I had grown up with that scrapbook, not really understanding its importance but loving to look at it. The menu from the Parisian restaurant Maxim’s, not your usual war souvenir, left an indelible impression.
In 2008, my job as the family memory keeper led me to check out my great grandfather online. His name was Frances Wallace Hamilton – the reverse of my dad’s name. Incredibly, I came across a query on www.Art.com searching for information about the World War One trench artwork of Wallace Frances Hamilton, my father! We were able to determine that the gentleman who made the query did, indeed, have the scrapbook. In an almost unbelievable story, we learned that it made its way 100 miles north and into the catacombs underneath the old Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California, only to be lovingly retrieved and cared for by this gentleman for the last 12 – 15 years! I was able to buy back the scrapbook contents, somewhat the worse for wear but basically intact.
Now I had my father’s manuscript and his artwork. I still had no time to work on the project and was wondering if I ever would. After my husband passed in 2016 and I was able to retire from my job at UC San Diego, I thought about what the next chapter of my life would be. The centennial of the US entering WWI was coming up in April 2017, so I thought it was the perfect time to pull everything together and start writing. I immersed myself in the various versions of Dad’s manuscript and began to check it for historical accuracy. I identified what his artwork meant in the context of his story. I focused on his manuscript first, then on his letters home to his parents, and finally to my memoir of growing up with this old cavalryman who painted, sang, danced, cooked, wrote stories and kept up a regular correspondence on the state of the world with Richard Nixon.
My Father’s Story and Mine
I chose to present the story and artwork as a website (www.silvergreyhounds.com) rather than as a book because I believe the story is a relatively unknown part of WWI history and deserves to be in the public domain. Part One of the book is my father’s war story in his own words, with editing and clarification by me. Part Two is his personal story, which includes letters home to his parents during WWI. Part Three is my writing, a memoir of growing up with a father 61 years my senior, a domesticated old cavalry soldier who raised me on stories of life out in the big world and became responsible for setting me on my own life adventure.
My father’s WWI letters home show an artist’s flourish in his animated and colorful descriptions of events. I had to get used to his writing style when editing the manuscript. I made slight alterations for clarity and admit to toning it down when his love of elegant words made the text unreadable. I was astonished by the historical detail he was able to correctly remember while in his late 70’s.
The following passage provides a stark description of what he saw while attempting to leave the front and report for his new duty:
“Well, at least this would be a change from avoiding artillery caissons galloping out of the rain-soaked forest at night’s darkest hour, side swiping my pup tent and kicking unexploded German shells around, as the 77th Field Artillery got its baptismal fire in the Foret de Fere near Fere-En-Tardenois. The sector I had so reluctantly departed was a place of unburied dead, artillery duels, captive balloons, flies, yellow jackets and lost bedrolls. Evening mess was on the enemy – we captured his rolling kitchens and food cache. [This fighting would become known as The Aisne-Marne Counter Offensive, Phase II of the Second Battle of the Marne, July 18 – August 17, 1918.]”
Once away from the horror of the war, Dad waxed romantic in his trip from Tours to Paris by Cadillac a few days later:
“Our first stop on the way to Paris was an excellent dinner. The region of Vouvray is not just a place. It is a rare vintage that will not ship but lives only a golden moment in the Loire atmosphere to impart that certain appeal of a masterly French “omelette,” impossible either to describe or forget.”
Everything must have been bathed in gold, considering the hell he had just witnessed.
It was also interesting to note that he wrote separate letters to his mother and his father. The letters to his mother are much lighter fare. Letters to his father were more grim and factual. It was a balancing act to write with an eye to each reader.
My dad has been gone for almost 45 years but I have realized that, after pouring over his manuscript and letters, my writing has begun to sound like his, minus the artistic flourishes. This is unintentional though I seem to know how he might have expressed the thoughts I wrote down in 2017. I spent so many years alone with him when I was young that the years during which he told me stories formed the person I became. In a college essay I wrote:
“He taught me to value the experiences I would have in my life, to reflect on them, to remember details, moments, to study things around me. As a professional artist and writer, he had mastered the ability to look deep into things and learn from them. He encouraged me to write down what I saw and thought. I could never do anything as well as he did, but I knew what an opportunity I had been given. From him, I learned to daydream. Together we would make things up. He always wished he had a wigwam – he liked to pretend he was outside in his wigwam with a fire blazing, while the rain fell around it. He had lived a rough life, almost always outdoors, raising horses and Airedales, or working in the jungles of Trinidad. I found out from him all the incredible things there were in the world, how much there was to daydream about."
This “melding” of my father’s writing and my own made it seem as though we were having a conversation like two adults. I finally understood what his experience had been like because I analyzed every word that he wrote and every sketch that he drew. And I learned about his love story, falling for a lovely USC student during his short time with the California National Guard in Los Angeles. His hopes were dashed, however, when he was told she was taken, as he prepared to make his way to her home after returning from Europe in 1919. I knew the name of the woman, and the details I found on the Internet allowed me to make her into a real, three-dimensional person. I prefer to believe that she did want to marry him but her father would not give his blessing. My Dad’s prospects as an artist were not the best for a banker’s daughter. Either way, it was a crushing blow that made soft-hearted Wallace Hamilton put off marriage for another 30 years.
The writings that Wallace Hamilton left behind helped me to not only open doors to an important piece of WWI history but to my father’s life. He was a man I was lucky to know.
As a major in Literature from the University of California, San Diego, Felicita Trueblood has been thinking about completing the writing that her father started for well over 40 years. Now semi-retired, she was able to fulfill her father’s wishes and tell his story just in time for the 100th anniversary of the Diplomatic Couriers and to celebrate the centennial of the November 18, 1918 Armistice agreement. She hopes that silvergreyhounds.com will introduce a relatively obscure piece of WWI history, and the man who was part of that history, to the general public.