Harry St Clare Wheeler,

His Navy Years - World War I, 1917-1919;

A quest to learn more about my father

By O. Keith Wheeler,  August 2007

 Click on thumbnails below for larger image.

Harry St Clare was born on 23 July 1899 in a small pioneer town in northern California as the01St Clare from 3bros portrait.jpg (131606 bytes) middle of 3 surviving sons of Andrew Jackson Wheeler and May Belle Osborn-Wheeler.  In 1902 the Wheeler family moved from Newville to the newer town of Corning that was growing because of its location on the new Sacramento Valley railroad.  Here St Clare (as he was usually called) attended public schools.  After high school, having just turned 18, St Clare enlisted in the US Navy at San Francisco on 27 July 1917 . 

 Enlistment Record grayscale.jpg (142893 bytes)

 

 Why did he join?  His descendants do not know.  Europe had been embroiled in the "Great War" for several years and, after a long period of "neutrality," the US Congress declared war on Germany in April of 1917.  Why did this boy from inland northern California choose the Navy?  Again, it is not known.  However it is known that his older brother spent time in the US Navy when St Clare was a child.  

Brother Gus foreground

- Young St Clare 

- next to youngest

                in center of Corning

family photo, ca. 1905.

[click photo for details]

02St Clare in fam photo.jpg (116090 bytes)

It is assumed that St Clare received boot or basic training in the San Francisco Bay area.  The next we know about his Navy time, he is in France .  His military “Identity Card” indicates enlistedID Card foreign svc grayscale.jpg (113284 bytes) assignment to the United States Naval Aviation Force, Foreign Service, with “Duty: Aviation, Brest .”  His obituary in the Corning Observer, April 22, 1939 , stated that, “He served overseas at Brest and St. Lazaire.”  A search for a French town by the name of St. Lazaire found none by that name.  There are, however, a few inland towns by the name of St. Lazare, but a more likely candidate would be the Atlantic port city of St Nazaire located down the coast from Brest and another location of major US Naval Air activities.  Brest was known as a seaplane base and a kite balloon station.  It was one of a few European bases where US Naval seaplanes were assembled after being shipped from the States.  It was also probably one of the many European pigeon rookery sites used for military communications of the day.  [For more history on the then very young US Naval Air Service, see: http://www.history.navy.mil/branches/ww1av.htm & http://www.history.navy.mil/download/sitz-nah.pdf ]

Curtiss HS single-engined patrol flying boat built for the US Navy during World War I

(image from Navy recruiting poster)

Some family lore suggests that St Clare helped in the assembly and maintenance of the arriving seaplanes.  Another hint of information suggested something to do with lumber.  Maybe he helped build those large hangars where the seaplanes were assembled and stored.  His later letters home mentioned that he was in the transportation department and drove truck.  Maybe he did all of these jobs.  Maybe sometime in the future the family can find more detailed military records that can shed more light on his daily military life.  We do know that at the time of his 1919 discharge from active service, he was a Petty Officer Machinist Mate 2nd Class - this being a respectable fast advancement for a young sailor over such a short period, even in wartime.

001a-St Clare_tents-we-live-in.jpg (87013 bytes)St Clare was also writing to his California girlfriend, Doris Birch, from03letters_image.jpg (140151 bytes) "Somewhere in France ."  These letters to his future wife have been found.  Not all letters were dated, but based on content, St Clare went overseas around November of 1917.  Most have the following return address:  "H. S. Wheeler, U.S. Air Station, Brest , France ."  Most are written on "American YMCA." stationery with the following letterhead: "On Active Service with the U. S. Naval Forces Operating in European Waters."  Early letters have the "Passed by Censors" stamp on envelope.

 

 

 

 001a-St Clare in Navy.jpg (86219 bytes)St Clare’s WWI letters are not great works of literature.  They are a teenager’s personal expressions to his “sweetheart” who was then a high school student back in the States.  In his earlier letters he gives little information about conditions or his activities.  For example, here is an excerpt from his undated letter from “Somewhere in France ”:

We have had quite a lot of snow over here and it has frozen hard as ice.  We have good times over here but I would sooner be in the States.  … I haven't much to say only everything is O.K. over here.  I can't put in much about any thing over here or they would throw out the letters.001b-St Clare in Navy.jpg (98627 bytes)

So it would seem military censorship, or the fear thereof, limited information given.  This is again implied by comments in his 17 June 1918 letter:

I can't write much for there's nothing to write about.  I had my picture taken the other day.  You will find one in this envelope.

A month later he writes on “Knights of Columbus” stationary with a return address of “Base Hospital No. 5,” relating that he has been recovering from an appendix operation.  He then briefly adds:

… they are sure hitting the Germans pretty hard now and it won't be long before the war will end.

As the war winds down, his descriptions expand:

I guess I will go out on liberty this afternoon to a beach where the Y.M.C.A. has a hotel and come back Sunday night.              There is some fine scenery out in the country.  When you go on these small trips you see lots of interesting things.  I wish you could see some of the scenery I've seen since I've been over here.  This coming November will be a year out of old U.S.A. for me.  … The Yanks are sure hitting the "Huns" in the head and so are the other Allies.  The sun is shining now and you couldn't want better weather. ( 7 Sep 1918 )

2 copies of same photo  found

Name of ship in background?

001c1-St Clare in Navy_Brest.jpg (106736 bytes) 001c2-St Clare in Navy_Brest.jpg (125219 bytes) 001c2-St Clare in Navy_Brest-BACK.jpg (204157 bytes)
"U.S. Naval Air - H.S. Wheeler Brest France" written on front.  Same photo obviously cut down from larger size. On back of 2nd photo with much writing cut off, "... ing on bank ... ship they captured ... the Spanish in the ... Spanish (?) and American war (?)" (Could it be the USS Panther?)

From his letters we also learn that he is spending some of his time in the “transportation dept.” and driving trucks. 

The so-called “War to end all wars” wound down with a ceasefire on 11 November 1918 .  On 14 Dec. 1918 , St Clare writes from Best:

You see I'm in the transportation dept. so are all the truck drivers.  And there will be lots of stuff to haul after peace is signed.  Yesterday I went on liberty.  You ought to have been here and seen the president when he landed.  There was ten super dreadnoughts & a bunch of destroyers that convoyed him in.  It was sure some sight to see all those battle wagons come steaming in.  Today the French are having a holiday celebrating.  The town is all decorated with flags and large signs saying (Long Live Wilson ) (Honor & Welcome to Wilson) etc.  The people sure shouted & the bells rang & whistles blowed when he came up the street on his way to the depot where they had cars all decorated  up and two or three bands were playing.  It was quite a sight.

002a-group-ALBUM.jpg (125331 bytes)In a “P.S.” to a 29 Dec 1918 letter he mentions sending a photo of himself with his “crew that works on my truck.” [St Clare 2nd from left, front row.  For better photo of type of truck shown in background in this photo, see: Picasa Web Photo #90 ]

 

In mid January 1919 he writes:

I don't know if I will go back to the States for some time yet.  They are shipping most of the regular drivers to Belgium .  And I guess I will go after a while myself.  It is sure cold up there where they are, lots of snow on the ground.  I signed my name on the list to volunteer to go for they sure need the drivers up there to distribute the food among the poor starving Belgium women & children.  Their homes are all torn up and their country needs help for there was only four sq. miles that wasn't touched by shells.  This war sure ruined the country where the shells flew.001d-St Clare & chum.jpg (103122 bytes)

            You take a look at the battle field where there were happy homes once and all you can see is ruined buildings and big shell holes all over the country.  Everything is as still as night, not a sound.  The smell of the battle field will make you sick.  You see bodies of soldiers that were never buried and some that they do bury have only a thin layer of dirt thrown over them.  You see lots of the Yankee boys who have fallen, probably places where they could not be seen easily, and are still laying with their clothes nearly rotted off of them.  The Germans they don't bury very good.  They just throw them in a shell hole, probably sprinkle some dirt on the top of them.  So you can see how awful a place it is.  As far as you can see is nothing but ruined country like this.  I hope there is no other war like this.

 St Clare on left with "chum" W.D.  

Menges of Kansas City, KS, on right.

On 26 Jan 1919 he continues some descriptive experiences:

I have got off of the trucks now and I'm driving a light "White" passenger bus.  I make trips all over the country hauling officers & Liberty parties.  I work nights & sleep days.  I took a trip the other day to a town quite a little distance from Brest . I had never been there before but I knew the general lay of the country and the main roads.  I went the main road to this town.  I had to go through some large gates for most all of the towns over here are walled in with moats around them.  The gates were closed when I got to them for they all close at 9 o'clock .  I sure had an awful time rousing the people in the little stone house that took care of the gates.  A little old woman came out and opened them for me.  I don't know such an awful lot of French.  I made her understand that I wanted to get through the gates all right.  But after she came out in that awful cold night air, she started to jabber the French lingo so fast I didn't know what she was talking about.  I guess she wasn't saying anything good about me.  So I tips her with a couple of Franks.  After I gave the money to her, she was as polite to me as you please.  I gets out there all right and finds the officers that I went for.  They said they would show me a new way back so I turns through a large arch and goes by the walls of an old castle.  I traveled quite a distance and I was going deeper into a large forest and it was about twelve o'clock at night.  We went so far that the roads were getting narrow and awful bad that we couldn't go much farther.  We met a French sentry and the officer asked him if we were on the right road to Brest .  He said we couldn't go any farther on that road for it was too muddy and wasn't the right road.  So we turns around and have to go all the way back to the main road.  I finally found the right road and got into the station all right.

            I usually make trips like these all over the country at nights and there is sure some sights to see, old castles, large arches that have been up for centuries, for this part of the country is one of the oldest places in France.  I wish you were here to see some of the scenery for it is entirely different from the scenery in the States.  Everything is built out of stone, streets, houses, walls, even their electric & telephone poles are stone or concrete.

Changes are in the wind when he writes the following on 23 Feb 1919 :

We are going to leave here in a few days.  I don't know where we're going but we have to move (tout de suit) out of the station for the French aviation are taking it over.

 001e-St Clare in Navy_MM2nd.jpg (105812 bytes)

St Clare’s living descendants do not know what happened next.  Did the US sailors at Brest get reassigned down the coast, possibly to the St. Nazaire Naval facilities..?  The few letters home from this period have some talk of US service men being shipped back to the States and of early discharges.

 While his enlistment papers indicated that he signed up for 4 years in July of 1917, there was an apparent push to demobilize the military for economic reasons after the European fighting ceased.  St. Clare’s 1939 California obituary stated that he, “was one of the crew to bring back one of the large German liners.”Navy Discharge color.jpg (101730 bytes)  His Navy discharge certificate indicates that he was released from the Navy directly from the ship of his return, the USS Graf Waldersee, on 3 May 1919 , at Hoboken , NJ .  The Graf Waldersee was a German liner taken over by the US at the end of WWI.  Then, as a US Navy ship, she made 3 trans-Atlantic trips bringing troops back from Brest . [See: http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/sh-usn/usnsh-g/id4040.htm ]  Apparently St Clare was a crew member on the first of the 3 voyages.  He was then still just a young fellow age 19 years, 9 months, having spent a total of 1 year, 9 months and 1 week in the Navy, mostly in France .

After his discharge on the East Coast, he returned to California .  In just a little over a year, he would marry his “sweetheart” and start his family in California , but that is another, and all too short, story.  St Clare died of heart disease in April of 1939, just 39 years old.

HIS WORLD WAR ONE PHOTO ALBUM MOSTLY FROM BREST FRANCE NAVAL AIR STATION

Photographs and documents on this page have been found in family albums and belongings.  Only recently, an old photo album has come to the attention of St Clare’s youngest children.  This is an album wherein someone, probably St Clare or his wife Doris, collected his photographs from France .  Due to the many intervening years and poor storage conditions, most of these small photos are in poor condition.  No photos were dated and, sadly, very few had any identifying information.  A few photos apparently are missing from blank spaces in the album.  For family archival purposes, all found photos have been scanned at a high resolution.  Smaller images from this collection have been posted in 3 volumes to Peg and Keith’s Picasa Public Web Albums:

Sample from Volume 1

Picasa Web album Volume 1

Picasa Web album Volume 2

Picasa Web album Volume 3

Sample from Volume 2

We are currently being graciously assisted by historian friends from the Brest, France area and will be updating captions to the above volumes soon (Sep-Oct 2014).  We invite any additional comments, corrections or other input regarding these photos and their identification.  Please e-mail Keith at:  

 

NEW - 19 old French picture postcards have been found among family articles. These were loose postcards depicting scenes (probably before WWI) in the French cities of Brest, Paris and Bordeaux.  The scanned images of these postcards may be accessed by CLICKING HERE.

Attempts to obtain more of St. Clare's military records from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, so far have been unsuccessful.

More on St Clare, his life and family can be found on the WheelerFolk.org genealogy pages.  See: http://www.wheelerfolk.org/keithgen/d2.htm  

For more on the family plumbing shop business see: http://www.wheelerfolk.org/norweb/plumbingshophistory.htm

Material from this web site was published in a Colusi Co. Historical Society article entitled, "The World War I Experiences of Harry St. Clare Wheeler," Wagon Wheels, Fall 2008, Vol. 58, Nr. 2, pp. 5-9.

 

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