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Donald Chapman

Submitted by: Tish Wells {grand-niece}

Donald Chapman

Donald Chapman born around 1889, Donald Chapman served in World War 1 with the United States Army. The enlistment was in 1917 and the service was completed in 1919.

Story of Service

The story of Donald Chapman

In November 1917, Donald Chapman, 28, wrote to his mother, Ella, living in Ithaca, New York, “I have not been called yet.” He was a prolific letter writer to his sister, Mildred, and his mother.

He had expected to be drafted at any time. The Selective Service Act had been enacted on May 18th, 1917.

In the meantime, he was working with automobiles in Detroit, Michigan, and thinking ahead. “If I do not have to go to war,” he wrote, “I can make a lot of money in the spring. Second-hand cars will sell like hotcakes, as they are cutting down on the output of new ones.”

On December 15, he’d taken advantage of an “opportunity to enlist at my trade as auto mechanic… in the Ordinance Dep.” of the Third Division.

A day later, he was transferred to a “chock-full” barrack. Crowding being what it was, and having some dollars, Donald spent the night at the Hotel Deshler in Columbus, Ohio writing a letter to his mother on its letterhead, “We expect to have in a day or so for some point in the south, and after three week training we go to France to work back of the lines and will be out of danger.”

He asked his mother to send a Christmas card to his girlfriend Maybelle Rahl back in Detroit so she wouldn’t be “lonesome. She has done a lot for me.” Later he would ask his mother to send part of his pay to Maybelle to pay off his debts.

By Christmas he was transferred to Camp Grant, in Rockford, Ill, enjoying holiday dinner, but complaining about Army red tape.

“Nothing accomplished in 15 days but get our uniforms and now because some BOB had to go and the measles we ‘five hundred of us’ are quarantined here for two weeks and can’t even go to the Y.M.C.A. or leave our quarters,” he groused. The camp was about “ten miles square, 35,000 men and “cold as blazes.” And, he complained, that they hadn’t been “issued any army shoes yet not lots of other equipment.”

He apologized he couldn’t send his mother a Christmas present but “will send you one from Berlin next year.” He also scolded his mother to make sure she didn’t send him a gift. “Don’t try to send me any Christmas present because I will now you can’t afford it and will be more pleased if you spend what you can on yourself.” He promised Mildred that he would “send you some souvenirs from France,” and, in a separate letter to his mother, said he hoped that Mildred would get “those fool love ideas out of her head and gets married soon.”

He also commented to his mother that now she could “hang out a service flag. You never expected to do that, did you? Ha ha.”

The service flag with a blue star signified that the family had a man serving in the armed forces. If the man died, it would be a gold star.

With an eye to potential mortality, Donald took out insurance from the Bureau of War Risk Insurance for $5,000 ($88,113.87 in 2017.) It would be paid in installments to his mother in case he died.

By February 1918, Donald Chapman had been sent to Camp Sheridan in Montgomery, Alabama. Compared with Camp Grant, he loved it.

“The weather is great down here just like June or July up north,” he wrote his mother. He swore that he would never go north again for the winter. Confined to camp under quarantine, he complained “we have not had any pay since we enlisted so I don’t suppose you have received any of my allotment yet.”

He explained in detail about pay in his letters to his family, written on Army-provided notepaper illustrated with pictures of the troops. “An allotment is made for persons who are dependent on the enlisted man or who are partly dependent.”

“Now as I know you have no income and are badly in need of money that is why I sent it, so get those fool ideas out of your head, and do as I say,” he ordered his mother. “In the army here we have to do as we are told and ask no questions, and that is what I want you to do.”

He also wrote that, “We all wish we could vote for T.R. (Theodore Roosevelt) and get some action… I don’t think T.R. could get elected as dogcatcher. And the mayor of Montgomery is about as popular in camp as a skunk at a tea party.”

Then the troops were moved in preparation to go to France.

On a one-day leave before shipping out, he met Mildred in March at a Hostess Home in New Jersey, one of the many created by the Young Women’s Christian Associations, as places where soldiers could meet with friends and relatives. The Home (supplied by ‘some wealthy man” her brother told her,) had a “low beamed ceiling, huge red brick fire place (and) hanging baskets of ferns on every cross beam,” she wrote to her mother.

One entire wall of the Home was books. “Each soldier may take one and then he returns it to the Y.M.C.A. in France, and it is given to a returning soldier,” a hostess told Mildred who selected one for her brother since he was expecting to leave the next day.

She wrote her mother that he had lost weight but looked fine and, “he would have come home only didn’t have time.”

Donald didn’t tell his girlfriend, Maybelle, about the leave because he didn’t want her to spend the money to visit him all the way from Detroit.”

Donald shipped out to France as part of the 3rd’s Ordinance Detachment. He ran into his first taste of the war in late May. He says he was near the city of Chateau-Thierry, which was being fought over by the French and the Germans who had destructively ransacked it.

Donald came away with postcards the he found when “it was still under fire in July (1918),” and, from a destroyed house, a set of Japanese toys that he sent back to Mildred.

The War to End All Wars ended in November but the Americans were still “over there.”

He was sent to Mayen Germany, then on to Anick where he was “billeted” with a German family. By March 1919, he was in charge of the “machine shop truck and the machine and welding for the Army same as when we were at Chateau- Thierry only it is more peaceful and has work to do.”

That Christmas he received a box of chocolate and a picture of his mother, and of his sister. “I received it all okay and was very much pleased with everything especially the photos of you and Mildred which are fine. … The candy certainly went fine as we can hardly get a taste of any since we came to Germany.” He also teased his sister that she must have gotten his rank mixed up with a Colonel’s “when she sent that silk handkerchief.”

He was lucky to have gotten the box. His letters didn’t make it home for months because “we found our mail never got past the organization that are outgoing mail went through. I have written you several letters from Germany that I suppose you never received as it was during the time we were attached aforesaid organization.”

His back mail arrived in June, but most of his letters home centered around a soldier’s major questions: “When do we go home?” and questions about his pay or “allotment” which was tangled up. It had to do with his payments to his mother of $20 a month ($292.64 a month in 2017). He ended up ordering his mother to do nothing and cursing the “dirty yellow backed slackers in the office of Washington for the problem.”

“I suppose they will always have damned follies and red tape in the government.”

He also commented, “I think they can send home some of those fellows who are having the big times in the coast towns in France and let the fellows who ate corn willie (canned corned beef) and hard tack for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and who worked every day from 8 to 15 hours seven days a week from July until Jan. and under fire go home, don’t you?”

When his sister mentioned seeing an aero show, he wished was home to see the airplanes commenting that, “It’s a grate (sic) sight to see about 300 of them in the air as once like I did at Verdun or the Argonne.”

By late July, life was better. He visited London where there were “hundred of wonderful girls – had a hard time to get away without getting married. I am very much in love with England.”

He also went to Paris on a three-day pass and spotted General John J. Pershing drive by in his “Locomobile with the four stars.” He also stood “in the spot in the hall where the Germans will sign the peace treaty… also saw several of them (the delegates).”

Then, in late August 1919, Donald Chapman came home. The Salvation Army War Department sent a telegram to his mother in Ithaca saying he’d arrived back at Camp Merritt, New Jersey.

He married Maybelle Rahl in July 1920 but they divorced several years later. He re-joined the Army in World War II. He married again to Ruth Rivers, and had one son. He passed away in Los Angeles in 1963.

(This was excerpted from a longer article on World War I, drawn from family letters and photographs. Tish Wells.)

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