World War I, through the eyes of Luther Rickerson

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Next Sunday, November 11, will be the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.

Today’s Echo will examine the story of a Webster Parish solider through some letters exchanged between him and his family back in Dubberly. A few months back, Bryan Mattison shared with me the story of Luther P. Rickerson, a relative of his stepfather. He provided the correspondence between Rickerson and his family along with several pictures. In the ensuing time I tried to find material to flesh out the story. Unfortunately, most of the records were destroyed in a fire at the National Personnel Records Center in July 1973. So, there are some unanswered questions. However, this is a very interesting glimpse into the mind of one of the “doughboys” fighting with the AEF during the “war to end all wars.”

Luther P. Rickerson was born on October 2, 1917, in Dubberly to Jesse A. and Mary Rickerson. Details of his early life are scarce, but by 1916 he was a solider in the United States Army and part of the expedition into Mexico in response to Pancho Villa’s raid on Columbus, New Mexico. That military exercise, commanded by General John Pershing, was in Mexico from March 1916 until January 1917. It is not clear what unit Rickerson was attached to at the time, as his later service would be in the infantry, while the forces in Mexico under Pershing were cavalry units, involving among others 2nd Lt. George S. Patton. As mentioned before, Rickerson’s military records were destroyed, but he sent a post card home to his family including an image of the Mexican soldiers commenting on their appearance. We do know that by the summer of 1917, he was stationed at the US Army training base at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, serving as a Staff Sergeant. The first correspondence in the collection I have seen was a post card sent from Gettysburg to his mother on June 11, 1917. Rickerson wrote, “Will drop you a card to let you know I am well. Hoping this finds you the same. This certainly is a beautiful place. Will write a letter soon.”

Another card sent to a relative in August had the image of the infamous “Devil’s Den” on the Gettysburg battlefield.

A news item in the Gettysburg Times of October 23, 1917 reports that the First Company Training Battalion sold $11,000 in war bonds. “Corporal John F. Lewis assisted by Sergeant Luther Rickerson had the honor of handling the sales.” This notice comes at the very end of Rickerson’s stay in the Gettysburg area, because according to military transport records, he and his unit were headed for France as part of the American Expeditionary Force. Rickerson and the rest of the 1st Company of the 18th Infantry left the US from Hoboken, New Jersey on October 29, 1917 on the USS Mount Vernon bound for France.

On November 24, 1917, Rickerson’s parent received his first letter from overseas. The text of that letter was as follows: “Dear Folks, I will write a few lines tonight to let you know I am getting along fine and am enjoying the best of health. I suppose you think I am not going to write anymore but I have been so busy since we have been here until I have hardly had time for anything. I had a pleasant trip over the sea and was not sick any at all. I can’t tell anything of the trip of where we are now or where we have been on account of the censor. So, you need not ask any questions. You need not worry over me for we are well fed and card for. I have not received any mail since I have been here, and I suppose it will be some time before I do as it takes so long for the mail to go. So, write me often and when you do not hear from me say I am well. I will close as it is time to go to bed. Write soon with love to all.

Yours, LP, Co. D 18th Infantry, AEF France.”

On November 28, he wrote home again with largely the same sentiments but including some other information. “I think I will like this country fine for the climate seems to be the same as it is at home. You will not get my letters as often as you did before, but I will write often so you do the same.” The next day, he wrote again including the following in his letter: “I like France fine, only it rains a great deal. We had a little snow a few nights ago but it has turned somewhat warmer now. I would like to tell you about my trip over here, but it is impossible, so you need not ask many questions when you write. I suppose I will close as I have said about all I can say, except we have turkey for dinner today. So, you see we have plenty to eat if I get turkey Thanksgiving. Write soon. With love to all, your son, LP.

On December 3, 1917, Rickerson wrote his cousin, “Breeze” Rickerson saying, “. . . I like this country fine, wish you could have been here with me and see some of the sights, of which there are plenty, but I cannot tell you about any of them now, except is snowed a little last night and it has been somewhat cool today. What are you doing these days? Going squirrel hunting I suppose. I have not had a letter from home or from anyone since I have been over here, but it takes a long time for mail to come and go. What did you do on Thanksgiving Day? I wish you could have been with us and seen our Thanksgiving dinner in France. Wishing you many happy blessings for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.”

On December 6, he wrote his parents once again. “I will write you a few lines to let you know I am getting along fine and hope this finds you the same. I like this country fine but not so well as the US. We have had a little snow, but it is not very cold now. This part of the country is damp and low lands. I wish you could send me some American smoking tobacco. We can hardly buy anything but French tobacco here and do not like it much. I still have my same job, only here is more work to it over here than in the states. I suppose you have plenty of fresh pork and sausage now, have you not? How many hogs did you have this year?”

By December 10, he had finally received a letter from home as in his letter of that day he commented: “I received your letter a few days ago dated October 26 and was glad to hear you were getting along so well. I also had two letters from Pearl. She says she is going to spend the holidays with John.” He wrote home again on December 19 with similar sentiments and then on Christmas Day sent a letter including the following information. “We had a very fine Christmas, plenty of turkey, cakes and peas. It is snowing tonight.”

The letters continue along these lines. He wrote home on January 8, January 30 and February 9. On March 14, 1918, he wrote to cousin “Breeze” to say: “I received the package of tobacco a few days ago and was very glad to get it for Prince Albert is a scarce article in this country. I would like very much to tell you all about the country and the people over here and where I have been and the many queer things I have seen, but it is impossible, so you will have to wait until I get back home. After a period of silence, he sent letters to both his parents and “Breeze” on April 12. He told his parents: “I suppose you think I am never going to write you anymore, but you are mistaken. I know it has been nearly a month since I last wrote, but I would have written sooner, but it has been impossible, so if you do not hear from me every week, do not be afraid anything has happened, for there may be a time when you don’t hear from me for two or three months, but I will write whenever I can. How is everything progressing around home these nice Spring days. We are having some fine Spring weather over here now the fruit trees are in full bloom and the grass has begun to grow. What are you doing these days? I hope the next Spring will see me able to be back on the dear old farm once more.”

Letters on April 26 and May 1 included similar information. In the letter of May 1, he asked, “Next time you write tell me all the changes that have been made and what everyone is doing. How is business in Dubberly these days and who is in business there now? How are prices over there these days? Very high I suppose.” Letters followed on May 23 and May 28. His letter of May 29 included some different information. “You asked if your letter were ever censored. They are not, nothing but parcels from the US are censored. You never said anything to me before about having a horse, where did you get it and how long have you had her? You wanted to know what the people raised in this country, so I will try and tell you as much as I have seen. Grain is the principal crop and they sure believe in plenty of it.

Clover, alfalfa, wheat, oats, rye and all kinds of vegetables grow fine in this country. I have never seen any corn growing so I don’t know whether any is raised here or not, but I can say one thing that this is sure some country for truck farming and apples are also plentiful. Some of the prettiest flower gardens I ever saw are over here and more different kinds of flower. The French people live at home almost entirely, if the people in the US would only do as these people and not depend on the stores so much, they would be better off. Well, I sure was hungry when I read your letters all the good vegetables you had for dinner, but don’t think I am not getting plenty to eat, for I am, but you know it is nothing like sitting down to a table of good fresh vegetables. I just heard that my lieutenant has died from wounds received at the front. He was sure a good fellow and we all hate to lose him, but you know the best must go sometimes. I also thought my time had come once, but it was soon over with and I am safe again.”

The letter of June 15 carried the familiar questions about health and assurances that he was fine, but there was a notable difference. He signed the letter, your son, Private L. P. Rickerson. He gave no explanation about the demotion and it concerned his parents. On July 11, his mother wrote saying she had just gotten his letter of the 15.

She told him of local events, such as a fire that had destroyed the Woodard and Walker Mill and commented the it appeared there was no insurance to cover the loss. “Lots of men are out of a job today.” She chastised him about not including information in his letters: “All the other boys tell their mothers what they have done. Don’t see why you can’t tell me some about your business, but if you don’t want me to know that is all right.” In transit, that letter passed one from Luther on July 11. He remarked, “I have an excuse for not writing you sooner and oftener and it is one that cannot be helped, so you must overlook it. We are now enjoying our rest after doing a bit at the front and it is very enjoyable to all.

On July 21, Mrs. Rickerson wrote her son once again and then on August 30. In the August 30 letter, she remarked that they had not received a letter in nearly two months, and they were concerned. She mentioned a recently concluded revival at their church. His father added a message, updating on the status of lots of folks in the community and telling L.P. that he was keeping up payments on his WOW insurance.

On September 2, 1918, a message received from Washington sadly explained the absence of letters. A message was received from the War Department saying the following: “Deeply regret to inform you that it is officially reported that Private Luther P. Rickerson, infantry, was seriously wounded in action between July 18 and 24. Department has no further information.” Casualty reports in newspapers released on September 10, included his name. By October 1, his parents had received an update. Rickerson had died from his wounds. Later information would provide more detail and clarity. On July 18, as part of the Battle of Soissons, a portion of the 2nd Battle of the Marne, Rickerson and the 1st Division along with the 2nd Division took part in the largest US involvement yet in the war. For the first time, attached to a large French army along with a small British presence, two US divisions attacked side by side. During this fighting, on July 19, Rickerson had been killed in action. Unlike previous messages, it seemed he was not just wounded but died on the battle field. Information indicates he was at first buried in France. However, eventually his body was returned to the United States. He was buried at Brushwood Cemetery in Dubberly, with a WOW grave marker on April 5, 1921. Ending the life story of Luther Rickerson.

So, as we mark the 100th anniversary of end of that war that propelled the United States to the status of world power, let us not forget the story of the average soldier who answered the call to “make the world safe for democracy.” Men such as Luther P. Rickerson, who longed to be home around those they loved but did their duty, making the ultimate sacrifice. Their stories are an important Echo of our Past.

Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.

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