Our History is a regular column submitted by Kate Rauhauser-Smith, visitor services manager at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History, examining the region’s history and some related displays at the museum. On July 22 The News ran the first of three columns discussing Surry County’s involvement in World War I as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of that war. This is the second. Misspellings and uncommon spellings in quotes from letters are correct to the letter.
It was Sept. 29, 1918, and Surry County men crouched in trenches as British artillery rained savage fire on the “unbreakable” Hindenburg Line. The guns had been blasting for more than 24 hours and now, in the chill moments before sunrise, the American troops were preparing to “go over the top.”
The men of the 30th Division, nicknamed “Old Hickory” because it was made up of National Guard Units from Tennessee and the Carolinas where President Andrew Jackson had such a connection, advanced into terrible machine gun fire, overran the infamous German defenses on the St. Quentin Canal, and liberated the French village of Bellicourt.
“The hour came for the biggest drive yet and artillery began, the whole world seemed to be on fire and over we went,” wrote Sgt. Sephas Lewis to his sister Mrs. Annie Pearl Lambert of Brim, North Carolina in October 1918. “We were soon among the (Germans), … we had gone but a little ways before two Sergeants were knocked off, one of them being my best friend, Sergeant Jesse Jones of Mount Airy.”
The other was Sgt. Claude Hooker also of Mount Airy. Surry County paid a heavy price that day as several local men were killed or wounded. Local veterans memorialized Jones and Hooker by naming the VFW and American Legion posts after the boys. The sacrifices bought the destruction of the 150-mile-long Hindenburg Line, which was key to the Armistice that ended the war just 43 days later.
World War I was a particularly vicious war, executed with horrific inhumanity against civilians as well as combatants. Surry County soldiers, upon seeing towns and farms destroyed, women and children brutalized, and forests cut down by the sheer number of bullets fired, told their families how important U.S. participation was.
“Of course I would much rather be at home with you all but you know yourself under the present conditions of the country I just simply couldn’t afford to be at home,” wrote Sgt. G.E. Welch in June 1918, “and I’m sure you feel … proud of yourself for being able to give a son to help win this great peace we are soon to have. I myself feel real proud that I was able to render my services to such a great cause.”
Though some Americans had been involved with the Allied fighting from the start of the war in 1914, the United States didn’t officially declare war until April 1917. Preparation and deployment took most of a year to implement. Many from this region trained at Camp Sevier near Greenville, South Carolina, where they were spread across different units.
Mechanical expertise among men who worked on farms and in factories placed many in positions in units driving and maintaining trucks in the 105th Ammunition Train, ambulance corps, and 118th Infantry Engineers. Others earned sharp shooter designations and were assigned to field artillery, and machine gun companies.
Too many of those “smiling boys” will be forever young. Rufus S. Atkins, raised in Rockford by his grandfather Frank Burrus, was killed in action in February 1918 at Meurthe-et-Moselle, Lorraine, France and is buried in Arlington. Lt. Robert H. Riggs of Dobson died of wounds received at the Battle of Belleau Wood in June near the River Marne. He was buried in the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery there.
Like so many North Carolina soldiers, James Inman was proud of his contribution. “We have the Hun on the run, and he is liable to stay on the run,” he wrote to his father, William, in Mount Airy in October 1918. “I am sure all are rejoicing over what we are doing for the Germans and I am thankful that I came over here.”
But he was equally ready for it all to be over. “When I get home I want to work on the farm, I have seen enough of this world.” He was one of the fortunate ones and did return home where he farmed until his death at age 73.
Kate Rauhauser-Smith is the visitor services manager for the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History with 22 years in journalism before joining the museum staff. She and her family moved to Mount Airy in 2005 from Pennsylvania where she was also involved with museums and history tours. She can be reached at KRSmith@NorthCarolinaMuseum.org or by calling 336-786-4478 x228