Alta Journal is pleased to present the second installment of a five-part original series by historian and longtime Alta contributor William Francis Deverell. The twisty, suspenseful story of the disappearance of Deverell’s great-uncle Francis, it begins in snowy upstate New York before moving to Europe and Los Angeles. As Deverell searches for his missing namesake, he discovers more than he bargained for.In Part One, Deverell introduced us to his father, a boy playing with his missing uncle’s World War I uniform in a Rochester, New York, attic.
Each week, we’ll publish the next chapter of this real-life mystery story. Visit altaonline.com/serials to keep reading, and sign up here for email notifications when each new installment is available.
John Francis Daly was born in November 1893 to John Daly and Anna Sullivan Daly in Rochester. Both parents were the children of Irish immigrants, and both were 19 when their son was born. John Daly worked as a shoemaker.
As Francis came of age in the new century, he seems to have been a good student; he won several honors for his schoolwork. He and his siblings received “Honor Roll” commendations from the local paper for their puzzle solving and gardening skills. Family lore acknowledges Francis for kindness, affability, and a sense of humor. His teenage brother Eugene died in 1913, cause unknown.
Francis registered for the draft in June 1917. He was 23 years old, married since October 1915 to Katherine Hamell, who worked in a Rochester shoe factory. Francis was inducted into the army on November 22, 1917. Various military forms listed his occupation as weaver and bookkeeper. He was described as short (five foot three), with gray eyes and brown hair, and was of “excellent character.”
The lower corner of his draft card, and every draft card from World War I, has a line on it. If the draftee was African American, the corner was to be torn off, basically so that the government and the military could enforce racism by way of this bureaucratic code. Francis headed off for training; it could have been, and probably was, the first time he’d been away from home. His young wife, Katherine (sometimes spelled Katherin or Kathryn), stayed behind living in her in-laws’ home on East Main Street.
Francis was assigned to Battery C of the 309th Heavy Field Artillery of the American Expeditionary Forces. The 309th had its share of young men from Rochester, some of whom came from the same neighborhood as Francis. Others came from New York and New Jersey—there were lots of Hoboken boys—but also from the Midwest.
Training took place at Fort Dix in New Jersey. Francis went in (and came out) as a private. His record says he did not qualify as a marksman. Each recruit was quizzed as to what he might do in and for the army. Francis became a cook. In the run-up to the United States’ involvement in the war, there was a School for Cooks at every military training camp.
Recruits did what they were told: training, cleaning, mopping, then cleaning and mopping again. Ice-box duty, potato-peeling duty. Coal-box duty. Coffee-pot duty. Latrine duty. I think that “going to France” may have started to look good, or at least different from Fort Dix monotony. More than one new army cook said that the first day on the KP (Kitchen Police) job at camp was the hardest working day of his life. The recruits (they called them Rookies) got yelled at constantly. They learned to say “sir” at the end of every sentence. They learned some new profanity.
As for getting ready for war, the men trained with haphazard artillery pieces, they played football and baseball. They learned military discipline and how to fight. They trained with horses—we forget how horsey World War I was. It was a war on the cusp; so many horses, but, so too, skies filled with airplanes and battlefields crowded with tanks. The 20th century tugging against the 17th.
I think about Francis there at Fort Dix. He had been, I think, sheltered by family, culture, and neighborhood. He was young. He was newly married. He had the church wrapped around him, whether he wanted it or not. I am sure he thought that he hadn’t signed up for this, he probably thought that the close-knit working-class life in Rochester was what he was destined for, what he may have even wanted. I’d guess he missed Katherine back home. Here he was peeling potatoes as army officers berated him in New Jersey, getting ready to be sent to a far-off war in France.
The local Rochester paper ran a story on Francis and his uncle (his mother’s brother), who was also a private called up. The paper noted that Francis had added 30 pounds while stationed at Fort Dix. Lucky for him, and for all the others of the 309th, that they were gone from Fort Dix and New Jersey when the Spanish flu roared through in the fall of 1918 and killed thousands across the state.
The 309th set sail for Europe in May 1918. It is likely that the majority of these men had never been on a boat. I doubt that many of them could swim. All of them knew about German submarines. The recruits even took bets with the British crew on the vessel as to whether the ship would be torpedoed before making port. They ate English rations and hated them. A lot of marmalade. Stewed rabbit, in tins that had not been well sealed. They did not think much of the British soldiers, either. Comments about 1776 wore thin quickly, and this all must have been especially difficult for Francis, whose grandparents had come over from Ireland and likely held the British in anything but esteem.
Mass and other services took place on deck and were observed with regularity. All got seasick. The scale of the ocean took them by surprise. “There is,” said one naïve fellow, “more salt water than I thought there was.” Many, especially those who could not swim, were afraid of sharks every bit as much as they were of German U-boats.
They made Liverpool, then Southampton, then on to Le Havre, France, not far from the trenched theaters of world war. They trained anew with horses, as plans to motorize barely materialized. Horses added new aspects of danger. The French stallions were rough, mean, mostly unbroken. More than one soldier got kicked, some hard enough to be sent home, others hard enough to be killed.
The 309th prepared for, and then took part in, battle over a long and terrible year in a terrible war. A senior officer noted that the experience of the outfit had been “fraught with serious difficulties from beginning to end.” And that’s just the logistical and supply-line challenges. To say nothing of the fact that by the autumn of 1918, the young men of the 309th were thrown into the teeth of the worst that World War I was and could be.
It is hard to imagine how awful it had to have been, thinking of all that Francis and his battle mates faced in northeastern France. Vicious horses. Dysentery. Pneumonia. Enfilade machine gun and artillery fire. Bombardments from flimsy, but deadly, airplanes overhead. Mustard gas. Scurvy. Trench foot. Grenade throwers spread evenly down the line of every trench. Not only barbed wire, but barbed wire running an electric charge. Terror by day and night. Men passed out from fatigue or just plain anxiety. Macabre jokes about dying became stock-in-trade, as they are in every war. Men were told not to worry about that fatal bullet that had their name on it. “If it gets you, you’ll never know it in this world. If it doesn’t, you’re still alive.”
All the while, Francis cooked. But a trench kitchen would have been no picnic, nor would he have been back of the line at some tented affair with grills and field ovens. He was in the thick of it. I imagine him with an Enfield rifle in one hand, a bucket of potatoes in the other.
At one in the morning on September 12, the St. Mihiel offensive began in a heavy downpour. Hours of shelling went back and forth between the Germans and the Allies. The soldiers covered about 125 yards every five minutes, or just under one mile per hour. Hundreds of Germans, unable to keep up with a hasty retreat, got taken prisoner. The record suggests at least one war-crime depredation: Germans who tried to surrender were killed by a grenade tossed into their bunker.
The St. Mihiel offensive led to the Argonne Forest and the battles associated with the Meuse-Argonne offensive. This was, and still is, the deadliest engagement in the history of the U.S. Army. Besides the fighting, the men of the 309th and every other battlefield unit faced harassment from the Germans in retreat: artillery bombardment, airplane bombings, booby-trapped explosives, buried grenades, the incessant “putt putt putt” of machine gun fire. More poisonous gas. Hundreds and hundreds of dead or wounded horses. When a soldier was killed, he was said to have “gone west.”
The fighting in the Argonne Forest is what ended the war, an armistice coming on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: November 11, 1918. The men of the 309th learned that the war was over while in Verdun, an equally horrific landscape pockmarked by war’s destruction.
John Francis Daly was honorably discharged from military service back at Fort Dix on May 25, 1919. It appears he went home to Rochester, to his parents, and to his wife. Maybe he wore that doughboy uniform.
Two months later, he disappeared.•
TO BE CONTINUED