It’s nearly 100 years since the U.S. entered World War I, and though the connection to the area may still have some reach, a couple of residents are working to ensure that those from Portage County who served remain at the forefront.
“We’ve very much forgotten World War I,” said Tim Siebert, president of the Portage County Historical Society. “In talking to people in the community, they don’t know who (these guys) are … and that’s unfortunate.”
Siebert and Sue Koehl, who also is a member of the society, along with a handful of others have entered into an extensive undertaking – two years’ worth of research, documentation, sponsorships and community involvement – to bring the recognition, the culture, the feeling of World War I and the people of Portage County’s contribution to it back to life.
“We don’t talk about it very much, but it still impacts us today,” Koehl said.
The project, which will culminate next spring with a museum-like display at Heritage Park in Plover, ignited with Koehl coming across a collection of letters written by serviceman Carl Jacobs to folks back home here, and she found it so intriguing she contacted Siebert with the question of what to do to share these soldiers’ experiences and insights with the community.
Siebert at the time was conducting his own research into Portage County World War I heroes Admiral Albert W. Grant, General Edward Fenton McGlachlin, Troop I (a voluntary Calvary unit) and Clayton Slack, who was Wisconsin’s first Medal of Honor Award recipient.
The two decided to collaborate efforts, and the project took off.
Throughout the year, there will be various document releases, including up to nine books published (the third was just published), a video documentary put together by University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point staff, posters, displays, lecture series and articles about different segments of Portage County’s involvement in the war.
World War I began in 1914 and ended in 1918, with the United States entering in 1917. Nearly 3,200 Portage County men were on the draft registration list, though not all served. Some received exemptions due to health, farm needs and being essential workers. Still others chose to serve through volunteer efforts such as the Troop I Calvary, Polish Army volunteers, railway mission volunteers, nurses and National Guard volunteers.
According to newspaper reports in May 1919, 60 Portage County residents serving were killed, including those overseas, in camps and deaths caused by influenza.
Statistics aside, what intrigued Koehl and Siebert most through their research is the human and social aspect of the war, and that is what they hope to impart with this project.
“From a community standpoint, it was very impactful,” Koehl said. “This is more of a sociological look at the county. It’ll be focused on the community and what was happening.”
For example, Portage County was an immigrant community at the time, and though patriotic and willing to serve, those in the war had thoughts of the possibility of encountering relatives serving on the other side, Siebert said. And that’s only for those who were legal. “Downtown was a forbidden zone” if immigrants were unregistered, Siebert said.
Teaching German was banned, if a resident spoke against the war or in some way was seen as less than patriotic, he/she was labeled a slacker, and yellow stripes might be found painted on the property trees. The nuns who lived here and provided education to the county students among other missions had to register as illegal aliens due to their Polish descent.
In one instance, Siebert and Koehl said, federal marshals came in and there was a shoot-out because two brothers didn’t want to register for the draft.
Portage County residents had such patriotism that prior to President Woodrow Wilson’s war declaration, 122 county residents had visited Camp Douglas, and 73 men volunteered to be part of the Calvary and had been training on handling a saber and using a bayonet from horse.
More than 4,000 people rallied behind the war efforts that included parading downtown and all 97 cars in the county, children from all school buildings, Weber’s Band and staff and students from the Normal School attended.
Perhaps most poignant are the words of the Portage County residents themselves, in the letters they sent home from the trenches, many of which appear in the fourth book, “From the Boys with the Colors, Voice of Portage County,” a follow-up to the recently published third book, “From the Boys with Colors, McCreedy Brothers Letters.”
“Just a few words to let you know the Boche haven’t succeeded in getting me yet, but believe me, old boy have had any number of scares in the past week,” Sgt. Sidney Eagleburger of Stevens Point, a member of the band in the 127th Infantry in France wrote to his uncle, Claude W. Eagleburger, on Aug. 7, 1918.
“When they are busting around you and still you have to get there and get the wounded, it makes a person think of home,” he wrote. “There is not a person living that can describe the horridness and misery of modern warfare. A man that goes through ‘grist mill’ unharmed in any way and keeps his nerve is a wonderful man, worthy of the best of our old country and when he returns, Claude, it’s wonderful …
“That’s all, and more than once I caught myself wiping my eyes … be sure to let Dad know you heard from me because I have no more time to write to him. Love to all, Sid.”
Eagleburger also describes the first advance, right out in the open, he said, with every man “never a one faltering … fewer men than they started with, but they kept right on and on. It was wonderful and gruesome, too.”
Frank Hyer, son of professor and Mrs. F.S. Hyer and for whom the Hyer residence hall building on the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point (UWSP) campus is named, wrote to his mother from “somewhere in France, Aug. 7, 1918:”
“It certainly has been a wonderful battle, Mother, one you will read about in history. Nothing could stop our advance, not even high explosives, shrapnel, machine guns, nor gas. Lt. Berry and I are still whole, but we lost many of our former best friends. I lost four men out of my platoon, wounded all of them,” wrote Hyer, who served in the Machine Gun Co., 128th Infantry.
“Most of our advance was made so rapidly that the artillery could not keep up with us most of the time. Everyone hands it to the ‘doughboys.’ They did things unknown to any army heretofore. I can certainly tell a tale now, for I have been in it and have felt myself meeting my Maker more than once,” he wrote.
He spoke of towns razed by shell fire, houses wrecked and looted, of Germans employing all the natives in the fields and “in the dirty work connected with the army,” taking the children and leaving old men and women.
“The old people were so glad to see us when we captured the town that they broke down and cried,” he wrote. “… Give me a mirror to look into to convince me that I have lived through it and that is enough. If I’m kicked off now, I’ve at least enjoyed the privilege of going through a period of Hell on Earth for a good cause.”
Hyer also spoke about the wounded, their determination, grit, bravery and adaptiveness.
“Our John Speridakos, a Greek 99 percent pure, would not go back to the rear in spite of two ugly wounds in the chest and one in the hip until we forced him to do so,” Hyer wrote. “He is a first class fighting man. I couldn’t ask for a better soldier.”
And another, in a different company that the group ran into and had “a great ‘gabfest.’”
“I don’t know whether Father remembers ‘Red’ McConnell … when he saw me he stopped, put out his ‘paw’ and yelled, ‘Hello Coke.’ I was nearly overcome by his enthusiasm. He had been hit in the head, along his jaw and on his wrist. He did not know the wound was on his jaw … I asked him what had happened to his foot – another wound that he had not discovered … after bidding me ‘good luck’ … he resumed his whistling and walked off, happy as a lark. The friends I have made in the old company are the best treasure I won.”
It is these images, these lives, that Siebert and Koehl strive to resurrect through this project, in the hopes of giving Portage County insight into its roots.
“It’s been fascinating,” Siebert said.
Collaboration efforts with the community include UWSP Veterans Seminar class taught by David Chrisinger helped select the World War I soldier letters, UWSP Historical Documentaries class taught by Associate Professor Sara Scripps pulled together the documentary (which will be aired in the fall), Sentry Foundation provided financial support for this portion of the project as well as mentoring, the Women’s Club and sponsors for the published books. The books, “Madame Schumann-Heink” put together by Diane Peplinski, the second book “Songs from the Trenches” by Captain C. W. Blackall, and the “From the Boys with the Colors” books are available at the Portage County Historical Society for $10 each. Two more books are planned to be published this summer and another in the fall.
A lecture series also is part of the project with a variety of topics and speakers. The series will be held throughout the year. The first one was in April with Professor Susan Brewer speaking on the role of propaganda in the war.