Lester W. Chase
Submitted by: T.J. Cullinane
Lester W. Chase served in World War 1 with the United States Army. The dates of service are: Known 1916 - 1918.
The First to Fall; a Dreaded Milestone
Private Lester W. Chase, a shoemaker turned soldier, was the first service member from Derry, New Hampshire, to die of wounds sustained in combat during the First World War. Even with the 100th anniversary of his death fast approaching, his name remains firmly rooted in the fabric of the town as his fellow veterans elected to designate their meeting place as the Lester W. Chase Post Nine of the American Legion. Three generations of Legion baseball players have taken to the field with his name emblazoned on their chest, just one example of the community activities conducted in his good name.
Chase was pre-deceased by two Derry soldiers who succumbed to pneumonia. Charles E. Bitgood died in France on February 3, 1918, while assigned to the 2nd Infantry Division’s 15th Artillery Regiment. Just 22 years old, he was buried in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery, in Romagne, France. An excerpt from the Derry Enterprise published on February 12, 1918, contained the following sentiment, “Charles E. Bitgood's memory will ever be honored as being the first soldier boy enlisted from Derry to answer the last roll call on the soil of France, while engaged in the service of his country in that foreign land.”
In spite of this exhortation, it is the memory of Lester W. Chase that remains honored rather than that of Bitgood. Such is the “glamor” of death in combat. As we’ll soon see, the death of Lester Chase was anything but glamorous. Based on the information currently available, Frederick R. Huson, the other Derry soldier who died before Chase, appears to have passed away just two weeks after joining the Army. Huson died while undergoing basic training on April 9, 1918 at Camp Devens in neighboring Massachusetts. Bitgood and Huson, along with Chase, are memorialized on the tablet set aside for those who died in service on the town’s World War One monument.
Adding to the legacy of Lester Chase is his prior service. An Army national guardsman, Chase had previously deployed to the Mexican Border with Pershing’s Punitive Expedition. Just five months after returning from Texas, he was mobilized again and assigned to Company K, 3rd Battalion, 103rd Infantry Regiment, 26th “Yankee” Infantry Division. Not long after deploying to France with the American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), news of his grievous wounding and lingering death would play out across the pages of local newspapers as letters from his company commander, chaplain, and Red Cross care giver made their way across the Atlantic and into print.
Chase was born on June 10, 1896 to Fred E. (1866 – 1940) and Allettie M. Chase (1872 – 1963). His father was a house painter and his mother a homemaker. The family made their home at 17 Beacon Street in Derry. Sadly, even before Lester perished in the Great War, tragedy had visited the Chase family. Lester’s older brother Charles was killed in an accident at age 17 in 1910. The family worked through this heartbreak however, and after completing elementary school studies, Lester took a job in Derry’s burgeoning shoe industry.
With tensions brewing with Mexico in the wake of Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico, Lester, like many other young men in the community, felt compelled to join the National Guard. Whether to seek adventure, escape the drudgery of the shop floor or simply to serve their country as did their illustrious forbearers, the local national guard company filled up quickly. Lester’s regiment, the 1st New Hampshire Infantry, was federalized on June 18, 1916 and deployed to the troubled border areas on June 29, 1916. Here, Chase would gain invaluable experience that would later serve him well in war torn France. His unit was released from Federal Service on October 25, 1916.
Scarcely a week after the United States declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917, Lester’s unit was again activated for service. The regiment assembled at Camp Bartlett in Westfield, Massachusetts as part of the Yankee Division’s 52nd Infantry Brigade. Assigned serial number 69157, Chase would see his old outfit consolidated with the 2nd Maine Infantry and detachments from two Massachusetts regiments. The new unit was designated as the 103rd Infantry Regiment on August 22, 1917. Given the preponderance of Maine men in the newly formed organization, the unit took as its symbol a pine tree set in the diamond of the division insignia. The pine tree motif was derived from Maine’s nickname as the “pine tree state.” With the consolidation and re-organization of the Yankee Division completed, the new unit began training in earnest for the war in Europe.
Chase and Company K would journey overseas onboard the S.S. Lapland, an ocean liner from the prestigious Red Star Line pressed into service as a troop carrier. The Lapland was built in 1908 by the famed Harlan and Wolff shipyard in Belfast. In a previous journey some years before, the Lapland had transported survivors from the ill-fated S.S. Titanic back to the United Kingdom from the United States. After taking aboard Company K and other Yankee Division units, the ship cast off from New York City on September 17, 1917. Listed on the manifest with Chase was Armand Bergeron, another Company K soldier from Derry. Lester must have taken great comfort in having a friendly face nearby as he embarked on the second great adventure of his short life. Bergeron would be wounded a month after Chase, but survived and returned to duty. After finally arriving in France, the unit underwent intense and realistic training in preparation for the rigors of trench warfare. On February 8, 1918, the unit was sent to a purportedly “quiet” section of the front to gain badly needed experience and provide relief to war weary Allied troops who had borne the brunt of the fighting since the war broke out in 1914.
Chase acquitted himself well during the unit’s rotations on the front lines. On May 10, 1918, he was hand-picked to participate in a trench raid. During this brutal but ultimately successful engagement, Chase was mortally wounded. While official word of Chase’s wounding made its way through the cumbersome notification process, letters from the front sent to his parents and later published in the Derry Enterprise informed the community how Chase bravely faced his untimely demise.
The first letter to arrive was from Lester’s commanding officer, 1st Lieutenant Thomas J. Quirk. Addressed to Lester’s mother and dated June 19, 1918, Quirk opened the letter by expressing his deep regret at her son’s passing. He further reported that, “During the time he has been a member of this organization he has proved himself a good soldier, willing to do his duty at all times, and while we can only offer our sympathy in your bereavement you may well be proud that you had a son who did not flinch when the time came to make the supreme sacrifice in this great struggle.” Citing censorship regulations, he declined to provide details surrounding the circumstances of Lester’s death, and concluded the letter by quoting the somewhat cold and clinical surgeon’s report: “Died in this hospital May 25, 1918 of septicemia, following gunshots wounds, in line of duty, not the result of his own misconduct.”
The next missive was sent by the Reverend Sherrard Billings, chaplain of Evacuation Hospital Number One. Chaplain Billings reported to Mrs. Chase that, “He came into hospital gravely wounded, and suffering, too, from shell shock. At one time he seemed better, and gave some hope of recovery, but his wounds were too severe for his strength. He was patient and good, and everything possible was done for him. I am very sorry for you but he was a brave boy, and died gallantly in a brave cause.” In contrast to the harsh closing of Lieutenant Quirk’s letter, Reverend Billings wrote, “I read the beautiful Episcopal service over him and we laid him to rest among his comrades in the attractive little American cemetery near the hospital. I pray the Lord will comfort you. Some day you will meet him again.”
Mary Gertrude Brownell of the Home Communication Service, American Red Cross, sent the last and most revealing letter to Mrs. Chase. “I want to write too”, she began, “to tell you how much we all admired your son for his bravery and cheerfulness while he was here. As you have probably heard, on May 10th, while on a raiding party, he was wounded very badly in his legs, face and arms, by the explosion of a hand grenade thrown by the enemy.” As we have seen above however, neither Lieutenant Quirk or Chaplain Billings revealed the circumstances of Lester’s death to Mrs. Chase.
Brownell continued by writing, “He was brought straight to this hospital, where he made a brave fight for his life. The doctors and nurses took the greatest interest in him, and gave him every care, but despite everything that they did for him he died on May 25th, very early in the morning. I am glad to say that I was in his ward on the afternoon before he died, passing some cigarettes around to the boys. I offered him one, and much to my surprise because he was so weak, I lighted it for him, and he smoked it all with apparently the greatest enjoyment. On other days when I had gone in to see him, he seemed pleased to have the magazines that I brought him from time to time. Whenever I asked him how he was, he always said that he was feeling better; it was indeed remarkable how he never complained, and was always hopeful and cheerful. He was buried in our hospital cemetery with all the military honors, and if ever a soldier deserved them he did. The Red Cross will, before long send you a photograph of your son’s grave, which we hope will be of some small comfort to you.” She concludes by offering her deepest sympathy to Mrs. Chase and repeats how all admired her son during his stay in the hospital.
Having bade farewell to their fallen brother, the 103rd Infantry Regiment soldiered on, amassing an outstanding combat record. Constantly at the front, they participated in the battle of St. Mihiel as well as the Champagne-Marne, Aisne-Marne, Meuse-Argonne, Ile de France, and Lorraine Campaigns. It was reputed that the regiment never lost a prisoner while holding a defensive sector. They further boasted of having a squad of Passamaquoddy Indians from Pleasant Point Village in Maine, whose warrior spirit was evidenced by every one of them being either killed or wounded in battle. The regiment and their parent brigade finished the war having captured 1,500 prisoners and 30 kilometers of enemy territory. They sustained 5,000 casualties in the process. Today, their regimental colors are displayed with pride in the Maine state house in Augusta.
Taking advantage of a U.S. Government initiative to repatriate the fallen in 1921, Mr. and Mrs. Chase elected to have Lester’s body brought home. Lester’s remains were disinterred from the hospital cemetery and loaded aboard the U.S. Army Transport Wheaton. The so-called funeral ship departed from Antwerp on June 19, 1921 and docked in Hoboken, New Jersey on July 2, 1921. The casket arrived in Derry three weeks later. On July 24, 1921, a public service for Chase was held in the Adams Memorial Hall on East Broadway. Preaching to a capacity crowd, a stirring eulogy was delivered by the Reverend William Warren, pastor of Saint Luke’s Methodist Church. The members of the Legion Post bearing his name attended the service as a body and acted as pallbearers and the guard of honor. The post also provided an escort as Lester’s body was transported to the Chase family plot in the Pleasant View Cemetery in neighboring Londonderry. He was laid to eternal rest beside his brother Charles and lies there still. Every Memorial Day his grave is carefully attended to by his fellow veterans, proud to honor the legacy of Derry’s first to fall in the Great War.
Afterword: Armand Bergeron, who served beside Chase in Company K, apparently fell on hard times after the war. He died in 1933 and was buried in an unmarked grave in the town’s Catholic cemetery. This situation was only remedied when Bergeron’s fellow veterans from the Lester W. Chase Post Nine arranged to have a veteran’s headstone erected over his grave. Unable to help his friend in life, Lester’s spirit of service would reach out to him in death.
On another poignant note, The USAT Wheaton, which helped carry home the casualties of the First World War to include Chase, would itself become a casualty in the Second World War. Re-named the Alaskan, it was torpedoed and sunk by a U-boat in 1942 with eight of its 58 personnel perishing in the South Atlantic.