Christmas fell on a Wednesday in 1918. Letters were still arriving in Mendocino from men who had fought the War to End All Wars. Though the armistice had been signed a month and a half earlier, the yuletide mail brought news from young men like Clarence Jarvis who'd been in the thick of it. “I have been on the move ever since I arrived here. We didn't get time for our meals, when the big drive was on and when we stopped, ‘we flopped.’
“You know it was hard to keep up with ‘Jerry.’ What he lacked in fighting, he made up in running, and we ran them ragged, believe me. We were operating with the 1st Army on the Verdun front when we first came over. After our regiment was wiped out, we were sent to the Somme sector, where we were attached to the 27th and 30th divisions, which were shock troops for the 4th British Army operating on the Somme front. The 27th and 30th were the first to bust the Hindenburg, and they kept on busting till the thing was over. They were filled up four different times so you can see the price they paid.
“The old ‘whiz bangs’ have stopped and I guess they will be shipping us home soon… [W]hen I see the Statue of Liberty I'll be the happiest guy on earth. When we get started across the pond, I believe I can stand at attention all the way across.”
That letter was written and posted as the armistice was signed in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. Other families and friends received cheery correspondences at Christmastime, written mere hours before that peace was signed, letters from boys and men who were then shot down in the last hours and minutes of warfare.
Life and death went on here at home as well. During the evening of the day following Christmas, the wireless in Fort Bragg relayed a message from the steamer Klamath, out of San Francisco, bound for Portland. The vessel lay offshore with a sailor on board, suffering from a mangled arm. The wireless message asked for a boat to be sent out to get him ashore to a hospital for serious medical attention.
Max Isner and three other men put out in a dory toward the Klamath. They made their way to the vessel without incident. Shipmates lowered the injured sailor carefully aboard the small craft. Only when nearing the harbor entrance did the rescue mission encounter a moment of indecision. Whether a minor fog bank encircled them or rogue waves pushed them off course is uncertain, but they veered too far north until a reef caught hold of the craft. Waves tossed boat and men, capsizing the dory, tossing fully clothed men into the rock strewn-fringes of the Pacific.
Two of the Fort Bragg men swam back to the overturned craft, clinging there for all they were worth. The tiny boat drifted with the waves and tide, farther and farther, but, fortunately eastward, into the harbor. Finally men on the wharf, waiting to assist with the rescue, spotted the stranded fellows. A second boat put out and pulled them safely aboard. A third man had managed to crawl his way onto the edge of the guilty reef. The second boat heard his frantic cries for help, and he, too, was saved. Max Isner and the injured sailor drowned.
The influenza epidemic had subsided to such a degree that in Mendocino County there were those who slapped a knee with glee to find that the county tax collector had come down with the bug. Perhaps they joked about the matter because news spread quickly that the man was reported to be rapidly recovering.
On another front, the turn toward 1919 may well have been foreshadowed in the tale of 27-year-old Susie May Everson, a native of the town of Mendocino. In 1910 her parents moved with her to Palo Alto when she was accepted into the freshman class at Stanford University. She graduated with honors in 1915, taking up a teaching position at the high school in Modesto soon thereafter. In that locale did the influenza epidemic sweep her up into its vast numbers of victims.
(More life and death tales at malcolmmacdonaldoutlawford.com.)