Published May 25th, 2020 at 6:00 AM
They were brave words on the way to the battlefield.
“Moonlight nights have been wonderful…,” Fred Nason Furber wrote to his sister Alta, describing the precious few distractions available aboard his troop ship during its August 1918 Atlantic Ocean voyage to Europe, “but the other element to make them complete is lacking wholly.”
Furber’s moony remark, along with many other contemporaneous sentiments put down on paper by his wartime colleagues, are being transcribed and digitally preserved by the National World War I Museum and Memorial.
Since the facility closed in March due to COVID-19, a special team has been working from home, transcribing letters that had been scanned, hundreds of them in a flurry just before the museum and memorial shut down.
The pandemic has prompted the cancellation of the traditional Memorial Day observances at the Liberty Memorial. Yet the coronavirus also has provided a unique opportunity.
Employees normally responsible for other duties have been poring over thousands of handwritten pages of World War I correspondence, along with occasional pages from journals and diaries. Sometimes the transcribers have discovered tragic details of another national health emergency – the Spanish flu epidemic of just over a century ago – that are doubly poignant today.
When completed, the employees will have wrestled into digital text from sometimes unschooled cursive the wartime recollections of many. That includes Furber, as well as a bugler wounded on the war’s last day, and also the heartbroken members of a Kansas farm family.
(Editor’s note: Letters are quoted in this story as originally written, including numerous spelling and grammar errors, to faithfully share their contents.)
“Dear boy is out of all his troubles & cares now. & you must try & not worry about it, any more,” wrote an aunt of Jacob Myer, a private from Soldier, Kansas, who on Oct. 12, 1918 died of influenza at Camp Dodge, Iowa.
“I know it is aufully hard to bear…” the aunt wrote her sister Sophia Myer on Oct. 29.
If preserving wartime emotions generated 100 years ago represent an honorable end in itself, rendering cursive accounts into text documents also will make them at home in the digital era.
The transcriptions have been added to the museum and memorial’s searchable database – allowing its online community of international visitors swift access. Once acquired from the website, the text documents also can be used with language translation software, allowing them to be read in different languages.
Given the idiosyncrasies of individual penmanship found on personal documents themselves a century old, the work has been challenging, said Matthew Naylor, museum and memorial president and CEO.
“Some of the soldiers had poor spelling and terrible handwriting – and so it is a job to decipher them,” he said. “We are transcribing the letters in their original form and not making any corrections.
“That’s a challenge because autocorrect wants to correct things along the way.”
The idea originated in February when Naylor, noting how similar cultural institutions were strategizing in face of the virus, reached out to staff members.
“I asked, ‘If we had to close, what are the projects that could be undertaken?’ ” he said.
Stacie Petersen, exhibitions manager and registrar, pitched a transcription project that could be conducted remotely.
The museum and memorial closed after operations on Saturday, March 14. A transcription team of 17 employees soon formed.
The facility, which is scheduled to reopen for the general public June 2, generates about 42 percent of its revenues from ticket sales, events and café operations, Naylor said.
“We projected significant losses,” he said.
Still, Naylor added, the museum and memorial over the past six years had built reserves of working capital.
“We proposed that we would spend down some of that capital in order to keep the staff engaged and focused,” Naylor said.
“Our board was supportive.”
Accordingly, Petersen forwarded scanned letters to her team members on March 25.
Before the pandemic, the museum and memorial had digitized and transcribed approximately 5,000 pages of handwritten World War I letters.
The bulk of those pages had resulted from its participation in a collaborative digitization and transcription effort among Missouri museums and archives, undertaken between 2013 and 2015 and resulting in the centennial exhibit, “Over There: Missouri & the Great War.”
Since the current project began in late March, employees have transcribed about 5,000 additional pages.
“At this point we have officially doubled the amount of transcribed material available in our collection,” Petersen said.
Approximately 5,000 digitized pages remained to be transcribed in mid-May. And yet, the museum and memorial collection contains thousands more pages of correspondence waiting to be digitized and transcribed, Petersen said.
Furber’s letters had been acquired by the museum and memorial in 2007. They document his Atlantic Ocean passage and his arrival at an unnamed destination in France where – in an Aug. 29, 1918 letter – he detailed his adventures as an innocent abroad.
“We go to town on pass. It is lots of fun trying to talk to the Natives. Ordering things to eat and drink is most amusing – results usually astonishing.”
Furber wouldn’t write his next letter until Nov. 17, six days after the war ended.
“The last few days before the armistice were strenuous in my sector… Many gas shells being sent over so that we had to grab for our gas masks at frequent intervals. There were numerous casualties among officers and men from shell and machine gun fire – partially in daring patrol work in No-Man’s land.”
Perhaps not far from Furber was Charles Darby, a bugler who in April 1919 wrote a long letter to his mother. The museum and memorial acquired his correspondence in 2004.
“This is the first time I have had a chance to write a letter uncensored and is all true,” Darby wrote on April 3.
“The first bullet that struct me when in between my two shoulder blades and came out on my right side about the ninth rib. Well this knocked me about five yards and my cartridge belt flew off… I crawled to a shell hole out of the range of the firing…and also made up my mind there that if I lived thru that I would be a better man in the future. I lay there in that wet field until eleven oclock and then the Germans quit firing and we thought they were going to rush us… But they came out with their firearms and yelled their well known cry ‘Kamerad,’ which means surrender and told us the war was over…”
Also among the transcribed materials are 112 pages of letters preserved by the family of Jacob Myer, a private from Soldier, Kansas, a small community about 50 miles north of Topeka.
The collection, acquired in 2014, contains letters to and from Myer, his mother, several cousins and his brothers Herman and Rollo.
A letter written July 14, 1918 by Jacob’s brothers updated him on the farm he had left only two weeks before.
“The corn looks dandy but needs rain again,” they wrote.
On Aug. 27 Jacob’s mother wrote with more details from the farm.
“Well it will be 2 month tomorrow that you left… You can take it easy while we have to do the work. I milk one cow every night & Rollo milks one…”
On Sept. 9 Jacob reassured his mother.
“Do not worry about me I take care of myself. Yes I go to church most every Sunday.”
On Oct. 2 Jacob wrote to his mother again, this time saying “…most everyone are half sick in this company with cold and grippe some had to go to hospatial. I have…an awful bad cold I was just about all in had no appretite for over a week feel alright to night again. The whole camp is in quarantine for S. influenza can not to go exchange nor to Y.M.C.A. It sure makes it lonesome…”
On Oct. 6 brother Herman sent more farm news to Jacob.
“Corn is poorer than I thot…How is the apple crop in Iowa?”
Jacob never received the letter.
The envelope, postmarked Oct. 10, soon arrived back at the Myer farm. It bore a second postmark, dated Oct. 14 and reading “Des Moines, Dodge Branch.” The addressee’s name, “Pri Jacob A. Myer” had been crossed out with the words “Return to Writer” and “Died 10-12-18” scrawled beside it.
The autumn 1918 influenza outbreak at Camp Dodge long has loomed large in Iowa history. More than 300 soldiers had been placed under observation by Oct. 1, the day before Jacob Myer wrote to his mother about his loss of appetite.
A total of 100 soldiers died at Camp Dodge during the first week of October. That number more than tripled the following week.
Myer had been among them.
Ultimately 702 Camp Dodge soldiers died of the flu. Newspapers in Kansas reported that Myer’s body had been shipped to Holton in late October, with subsequent burial at Soldier Cemetery.
Museum and memorial staff members, in transcribing the letters, have found themselves growing invested in the lives of those who wrote them, Petersen said.
Anyone reading the letters, in fact, may find it hard to resist going online elsewhere to find any trace of the correspondents, or the scale of their sacrifice.
The small stone marking Jacob Myer’s grave, for example, is easily retrieved today, along with images of the grave markers for Jacob’s parents, Albert and Sophia, who died in 1928 and 1948, respectively, as well as those of Jacob’s brothers Herman and Rollo, who died in 1977 and 1985.
Transcribing the correspondence of those directly affected by World War I renders their experience – today a century distant – immediate and relatable, Petersen said.
“These long-past war heroes, people who served in this horrible, awful conflict – we sometimes see them as these higher, immortalized individuals,” Petersen said.
“But then you read their letters and you realize that, for the most part, these people were just like us.”
To access the letters of Darby, Furber and Myer, go to https://www.theworldwar.org/online-collections-database
Flatland contributor Brian Burnes is a Kansas City-based writer.