Isolated in the far northwest of Washington state, San Juan, a county of islands located between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., only slowly learned of the momentous events taking place half a world away in Europe in the spring of 1914. Over the next three years, as war news filled the local paper, residents' patriotic fervor grew and islanders were among the first to enlist after the United States entered the war in April 1917. Both on the home front and in all branches of the armed services, San Juan County families and servicemen worked with dedication and diligence to contribute to the war effort. Whether slogging through the mud of trenches in France, serving aboard a submarine chaser, working in a hospital, knitting endless pairs of desperately needed socks and sweaters for servicemen at the front, skillfully preparing surgical dressings, raising food, raising funds, or doing whatever the nation required, islanders demonstrated their whole-hearted commitment and determination. Of the 124 servicemen from the county (population 3,600) who went to war, nine were lost to battle or illness, and immediately after the November 1918 armistice, a campaign was begun to create a suitable memorial to commemorate their sacrifice.
War in Europe
On June 28, 1914, Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand (1863-1914) was assassinated on the streets of Sarajevo, triggering alliances and precipitating events that would quickly lead to war in Europe, a war of such horrific proportions that it would (with naïve optimism) be called "the war to end all wars." Although news of the turmoil rapidly reached New York and the East Coast, residents of the distant San Juan Islands were quite unaware that they were going to be overtaken by events so very far away. A month later, the local newspaper, the Friday Harbor Journal (FHJ), had yet to note the assassination; buried on inside pages were just a few articles with datelines of London and Vienna discussing the diplomatic breakdown and movements toward probable war in Europe.
By early August, however, a bold, front-center headline in the Journal declared that the defeat of Germany was necessary for world peace, and within weeks islanders were learning about military, diplomatic, societal, economic, and other happenings throughout Europe. Long analytical articles on military operations and diplomatic wrangling and short one- or two-line notes provided overviews and details such as the Belgian appeal for U.S. wheat that exporters were reluctant to send "until the supremacy of the seas is settled" ("News Notes ..."), and the nighttime dangers posed by icebergs in North Atlantic waters for steamships trying to avoid hostile cruisers. Despite America's official neutrality there was no doubt where sentiments lay, and islanders looked for ways to express support for the nations allied against Germany. There were calls for complete boycott of German products: The Journal editor declared:
"Made-in-Germany goods should become a curiosity in the United States. Every peace-loving American should shun the products of the kaiser's domain as he would a skunk" (FHJ, August 13, 1914, p. 4).
Although county residents could read weekly updates in the local newspaper (almost their only source of news) during the early years of the war, the stories that dominated the Journal continued to be decidedly local: articles on individuals and organizations, local and state politics, the schools, farming, the fishing and cannery industries, island limestone operations, domestic topics and fashion, and social activities. For every war-related article on, for example, the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915, there were several on such topics as the butter, egg, and cattle markets or the outcome of area baseball games or details of a local wedding. The war was never far from people's minds, but the struggle still seemed distant and even, perhaps, a bit romantic. Beginning in September 1916, islanders thrilled each week to a long-running serial in the Journal offering "a tale of spies -- of love and intrigue among them; of patriotism and sacrifice; of war's horrors and demands" ("Under Fire ...").
In early 1917, as direct American involvement in the war seemed increasingly inevitable, plans for a naval hospital in Washington, D.C., and the call for supplies brought the war closer to home. The Journal editorialized:
"While we cannot directly enter into the movements of defense of the country and its principles, we can help those who are directly engaged. Even the humblest of us can do this, and one of the ways offered is to assist the American Red Cross in its preparation to take care of the wounded and injured in defense of the country" ("A Patriotic ...").
The Red Cross was subsequently to find that San Juan County residents would participate with extraordinary dedication in its many and varied undertakings throughout the war and for decades afterward.
President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) had tried to keep the U.S. neutral, but events ultimately forced him to call for the United States to join the fight, and on April 6, 1917, Congress declared the country to be at war. The U.S. military was woefully unprepared. The standing army totaled only 175,000 officers and men. The military owned 55 aircraft. "There were not enough machine guns, not enough artillery pieces, not enough uniforms, not enough ships to transport an army to Europe. No wonder the Germans scoffed" (Hallas, 2). But throughout the country, communities immediately rallied to do all they could to assist. In San Juan County, an official reminded fellow residents, "You and I did not cause this war, but your boy or my boy, may answer the call to arms" ("Do Not ..."), and urged everyone to become fully and actively involved in the war effort.
Islanders Become Soldiers
Some islanders enlisted within weeks. Albert Nash (1896-1964), a student at the University of Washington, joined the National Guard and was inducted into active service on April 25. Harry Williams (1898-?), who was taken prisoner and held at Rastatt, Germany, through the last months of the war, enlisted the first week in May. Dr. C. O. Reed (1881-?), a physician in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, the county seat, offered his services to the U.S. army surgeon general and quickly received an officer's commission and assignment to a hospital.
Some county residents, eager to enlist, worked to ensure that essential services in their small community would continue in their absence. Leon Little (1886-?), the pharmacist in Friday Harbor, even went to Seattle in his search for someone to keep the drugstore operating while he served in the war. Within just a few months, San Juan County men from Friday Harbor, Roche Harbor, and across San Juan Island; East Sound, West Sound, Olga, Doe Bay, Deer Harbor, and other sections of Orcas Island; Richardson, Port Stanley, and rural areas of Lopez Island; and Decatur Island, Shaw Island, Stuart Island, and Waldron Island had enlisted.
It was immediately clear, however, that volunteer enlistments would not be sufficient for an adequate fighting force, and on June 5 the first draft registration was announced under the Selective Service Act. All men aged 21 to 31 had to register; on August 24 those who had turned 21 since the first registration were required to sign up. A year later in September 1918 the draft was extended to those between 18 and 45. Throughout the war, men were called up proportionally from around the country, and more and more islanders went to serve as the war progressed. Almost every issue of the Friday Harbor Journal noted, by name, the men's departures and initial assignments. By war's end, county residents had served in the army, navy, coast guard, marine corps, merchant marine, and fledgling air service as infantrymen, artillerymen, cooks, hospital workers, machinists, electricians, training instructors, seamen, firemen, carpenters, engineers, wagoners, radio technicians, air cadets, and in the military police, quartermaster corps, transportation corps, medical corps, and tank corps to name just a few -- in short, in almost every part of the armed services.
While at Home ...
In the islands, the population began gearing up to do its part. Everyone was admonished to use every available piece of land, no matter how small, for food production, and vegetable gardens were quickly prepared for spring planting across the county. Anticipating the enormous demand for medical services, the American Red Cross announced that funds were urgently needed to pay for the purchase of essential supplies and personnel. The Seattle chapter requested that San Juan County "furnish $125 or certain goods equivalent to this sum to aid in the work of the society" ("San Juan County Red Cross ..."), and a community meeting was immediately called to determine how best this money could be raised. It was decided that a dance would draw a lot of people and encourage everyone to feel that they were contributing. A volunteer 10-piece orchestra was promised for the event that would take place at the Masonic Hall; tickets at $1 each were available for sale throughout the county, and although the dance would be in Friday Harbor, all the ticket money and donations would be sent in as part of "San Juan County's contribution to aid suffering humanity" ("San Juan County Red Cross ..."). The dance was a huge success and reportedly had the largest attendance ever for that kind of event in Friday Harbor; $243.75 was raised with more donations anticipated.
Early patriotic enthusiasm on San Juan Island was reflected in a campaign for a tall community flagpole and large flag. The site chosen was prominently situated where Spring Street (the main artery through Friday Harbor) intersected Second Street. On the day the flagpole was dedicated in May 1917, a huge crowd gathered to celebrate their country. "The Boy Scouts stood in self-conscious resplendence [in] their new khaki uniforms and bright neckerchiefs" (Reed, 123). One of the county's oldest pioneers, Charles McKay (1828-1918), was given the privilege of raising the flag.
At the outset of the war, the American Red Cross had a presence in the county as an auxiliary unit of the Seattle chapter. Two weeks after war was declared, the auxiliary took on an obligation "to fit out a box for the Navy base hospital unit in Seattle: 20 dozen handkerchiefs (18 in sq); 20 dozen substitutes for handkerchiefs made from old linen or cotton, washed and boiled without being blued, hemmed or unhemmed; 20 dozen table napkins, size 14, finished new or made of old table linen; eight dozen tray covers ... finished white and made of table linen, sheets, or towels" ("Needs of ..."). It was only the first of many such projects undertaken by county women. As autumn approached, the Red Cross put out a call for knitted socks, sweaters, chest covers, vests, stump socks to cover amputated limbs, and fingerless mitts to allow trigger access. The Red Cross supplied patterns and yarn, and finished goods were sent to Seattle for packaging and shipping to the camps and to the battlefront. Knitting quickly became the almost universal activity for everyone of any age. Women knitted at home and in social groups; local boys learned to whittle knitting needles, and children knitted at school as part of their daily activities. "Knitting was acceptable at work, at school, at home, on public transportation, at social events, in theaters, and even in church" ("Knitting ..."). Over the course of the war, San Juan County knitters provided many hundreds of articles for troops in camps in the U.S. and for soldiers overseas.
Red Cross work in San Juan County became so extensive that local residents applied for the auxiliary to be transformed into a full-fledged San Juan County Chapter, which was duly authorized by the northwestern division manager on January 11, 1918.
Not only were county residents generous with their time, they also contributed heavily to numerous fundraising campaigns. Whatever the stated target was for the several major Red Cross funding or Liberty or Victory bond campaigns throughout the war, San Juan County, without exception, substantially exceeded the goals set by national or regional offices even though contributors were almost all farmers, fishermen, tradespeople, store owners, or laborers in local industries and were far from wealthy.
Going to War
After enlisting, most servicemen had a long period before becoming actively involved in the war either stateside or overseas. The first step was training, and many San Juan County men began their war experience at Camp Lewis near Tacoma. After arriving by train, the troops were processed, assigned to units. and issued uniforms and mess kits. They received physical exams; were inoculated for smallpox, typhoid, and paratyphoid; took tests; and were trained in trench warfare, land combat, and use of gas masks. Accommodations for the thousands of inductees flooding into the camp were limited to tents until barracks were completed. After months of training the men received their first assignments and were dispersed to other posts in the U.S. Each was issued a first-aid kit; a bacon can; a canteen; a condiment can with sugar, salt and pepper, and coffee; and a backpack and rain poncho. Most who eventually served in Europe did not depart the U.S. until spring 1918.
Some early enlistees, like Albert Nash, Fred Hackett (1898-1918), and brothers Sidney Hill (1896-?) and Glen Hill (1893-?), however, were sent to France almost immediately after initial training, many with the army's 41st Division, which crossed the Atlantic in late November and early December 1917. After arriving in France, individual soldiers found themselves in vastly differing circumstances. Some wrote home about the beauty of the French countryside and friendliness of the French girls. Many of the 41st Division battalions were initially designated as replacements, and the troops were housed, often quite comfortably, if temporarily, well behind the front lines. Soldiers even received reasonably regular mail from home, although it could take one to three months to arrive. One islander wrote to his family asking them to send some fudge and fruitcake.
Other soldiers had a far-less-pleasant introduction to France. By February 1918 some islanders were right at the front lines. Hackett, assigned to the signal corps where he became an expert telegrapher, wrote home to his parents, "I have now been 2 days in my little 'dug-out' taking and sending messages as fast as they come. The bullets are flying thick and fast overhead" ("On the Firing Line"). An article quoting from his letter was published on the front page of the Journal; during the war, such letters to relatives and friends were prominently included in almost every issue. Readers throughout the county were concerned about each individual serviceman's welfare and interested in accounts of his experiences.
By spring, the fighting was intensifying and casualties mounted. One soldier, writing from his hospital bed in England after being wounded three times, noted that he had been blown up twice in two days and that he had never expected to survive the engagement. "We had no place we could even sit, which meant no place to sleep, for everything was out in the open and I don't think there was six feet square without a shell hole, and it simply meant living in mud up to the knees" ("Tom Silcox ..."). Others were the victims of mustard-gas attacks that burned the flesh and left soldiers who walked through the liquid-saturated fields temporarily blind, or of phosgene gas that caused respiratory failure. And always there was the incessant shelling.
On May 1, 1918, 19-year-old Fred Hackett was killed when one of those shells collapsed his dugout during the fighting near Montdidier, France. His was San Juan County's first death, and he was mourned by the entire community; local flags were lowered to half-staff, and the Journal published a tribute with his picture on the front page. Others would all too soon join him in making the ultimate sacrifice, and each was memorialized in the county as a hero. One Orcas Island family was devastated by the loss of two sons just a month apart in the fierce fighting in the Argonne Forest. No longer distant or romantic, the sad reality of war had been brought home to the San Juan Islands.
German forces pushed hard during spring 1918 in anticipation of an Allied offensive. Americans already at the front were eventually joined by the main fighting force, primarily from the 91st Division, who were at last on their way to France. One San Juan County soldier wrote home that the trip across the Atlantic took 16 days and, while the ship was very crowded, the voyage was not too bad. Once out of the harbor the troops were fed twice a day, but there were so many men to be fed that eating went on almost continuously. All lights had to be doused at dusk since the most dangerous time for submarine attacks was at dawn and dusk when the enemy could raise periscopes a foot or two out of the water and not be seen by the watch onboard the transport ships.
When the soldiers finally reached the front in the summer and early fall of 1918 most just struggled to cope day to day with the terrors of the battlefield, although some were able to maintain remarkable equanimity despite ceaseless danger and horrendously bad living conditions. One wrote of the constant, pounding noise of the shelling and the flares going up that made every night look like a Fourth of July celebration. Another described life in the trenches where 25 men shared five berths with rats and lice. "I haven't minded the cooties much nor begrudged the rats to share my home with me but along about four o'clock in the morning when I am listening for the wire, they get out along the line and start to fight. Of course the first few squeaks sound like the wire, and I am undecided whether to shoot or heave a bomb" ("Cooties ...").
In Support of Their Servicemen
While island men were fighting in France, or serving with the Marines in Cuba and the West Indies, or on a ship patrolling Alaskan waters, their families and friends at home were doing all they could to aid them. The Red Cross oversaw numerous projects including the preparation of surgical dressings, which required special training and a clean, isolated facility. A room over the drugstore in Friday Harbor was made available and volunteers were recruited to undertake this vital work. The San Juan County Bank president provided several rooms that were outfitted with sewing machines so, whenever they had even a little time, women could come in to make hospital garments. By the end of the war, islanders had provided more than 33,000 garments and surgical dressings; the surgical-dressing unit received special recognition and was placed on an honor roll for the quality of its work.
The need for knitted items continued to be acute, especially for socks (even tube socks by those knitters who struggled with creating a heel). Knitters were encouraged to put stripes at the tops of the socks in white or shades of grey; the reasons given for the stripes were to relieve tedium for the knitters, to use up odd bits of yarn, and to facilitate soldiers keeping their socks matched and identified. As fall approached, the Red Cross began to organize the collection of Christmas packages to be sent to servicemen far from home; standardized cartons (3 inches by 4 by 9) were provided, and contents could weigh no more than two pounds, 15 ounces. Benefit dances, socials, picnics, teas, entertainments, parties, and lectures were almost weekly events throughout the county in a continuing effort to collect funds for the Red Cross.
The Final Months
In the autumn of 1918 the U.S. and much of Europe was struggling not just with the war but also with a devastating outbreak of influenza (called "Spanish flu" because first reported in Spain). All army camps were under quarantine and every soldier underwent examination twice daily. Still, local soldiers were hospitalized and at least one islander died in training camp in the terrible epidemic. The population at home was hard hit as well; schools closed and public gatherings were forbidden. Nevertheless, there were some exceptions for celebration. The entire Roche Harbor community turned out to joyously welcome home -- with a party and gifts of engraved gold watches from John McMillin (1855-1936) of the Roche Harbor Lime Company -- brothers Glen and Sidney Hill, both of whom had been seriously injured in the spring fighting in France.
A prominent headline across the November 14, 1918, front page of the Friday Harbor Journal trumpeted the news of the armistice signed on November 11. It would be up to two years before all the troops were demobilized, but the fighting had ended and most servicemen returned home within months. Although the scheduled Friday Harbor celebratory parade was canceled because of inclement weather, an informal parade begun by three small children despite the rain became a "parade of several hundred ... giving vent to their feelings by flag-waving accompanied by the honking of many automobile horns" (FHJ, November 14, 1918). Veterans in San Juan County, as elsewhere across the nation, soon organized a unit of the American Legion "to preserve a sense of comradeship and to look after their interests" (Hallas, 327). The Friday Harbor unit was named Hackett-Larson Post 163 to honor Fred Hackett, the first county soldier to die in battle and Budd Curtis Larson (1890-1918), the last, killed exactly one month before the armistice.
Just a month after hostilities ended, the Women's Study Club in Friday Harbor proposed that the county should create a memorial to those who had served in the war. The Journal's editor suggested that perhaps it was most important to focus on those who were not coming home to family and celebration, and to erect "an everlasting memorial, which would not only remind us of the 'few' who could not return, but also prove to their living relatives that those heroes are still and will always be in our minds" (FHJ, January 30, 1919, p. 4). Fundraising began and a target of at least $1,000 was declared. At a public meeting community members discussed what kind of memorial was wanted. Interestingly, the consensus of those most involved with the project was that "the usefulness [of the memorial] in community life should not influence the selection" ("They Must ..."). Ultimately a "monument with a fountain effect" ("Memorial ...") was decided on, and a committee appointed to oversee its creation and installation.
November 11, 1921, was a day of special remembrance of the great war that had ended just three years earlier. A large crowd gathered at the foot of Spring Street on Friday Harbor's waterfront, where ceremonies included speeches, music, and, most importantly, the official unveiling of the monument in the tiny memorial park. A total of $1,500 had been raised, and "practically everyone in the county [had] contributed to the fund" ("The Armistice Day ..."). The granite monument was, as agreed, "of a fountain effect ... On the four sides ... [were] carved insignia of the four branches of military service, namely: the Navy, the Marine Corps, the Artillery and the Infantry" ("The Armistice Day ..."). A bronze plaque listed the names of all the county's fallen soldiers. For the state of Washington as a whole, about 3 percent of the soldiers who went to war did not come home; in San Juan County, the figure was more than twice that, making it among the Washington counties with the heaviest proportionate losses. County residents had much to be proud of -- those in service and those at home had all contributed unstintingly to the war effort. On that Armistice Day, there was heartfelt thanksgiving throughout the county's peaceful islands that their shared experience was now a part of the past.