Interview With Mary Pat Sweetman

From the interview with Mary Pat Sweetman conducted by Hazel Hatfield at the Fort Worden History Center on September 10, 2002. The subject of the interview was the military career of Ms. Sweetman’s father, Nicholas Kenkel (1889-1987) of Earling, Iowa during World War I. Army Private Kenkel did his basic training at Fort Worden and was sent to France near the end of the conflict.

Edited transcripts and verbatim recordings of this and all interviews conducted for the Fort Worden Oral History Program are available at a nominal fee to cover duplicating and shipping. Inquire at info@fwfriends.org or 360.344.4481 for details.

“ Nicholas Kenkel, was born on December 8, 1889, near Earling, Iowa, the oldest of ten children. His father had emigrated to the United States from Luxembourg as a young man. His mother too came from Luxembourg, although they didn’t know each other beforehand. They both moved to the town of Earling and were later married there. As a young man, Nicholas worked at several jobs around the Earling area. In the Spring of 1917, he started farming the parental farm near Defiance, Iowa. On April 6th of that same year, the United States declared war on Germany and we entered World War I. Within a month or two, Nicholas was drafted into the US Army but he was granted a deferment so that he was able to harvest his crops.

He was inducted on December 19th 1917 at the age of 27. For basic training, Nicholas was sent to Fort Worden, Washington, on the Puget Sound. Along with several other men from Earling, he left from Harlan, Iowa, on a train with about 500 other men also bound for the Army. This group arrived at their destination at Fort Worden on Christmas Day. In my father’s words, they were tired and hungry, and were treated to a Christmas dinner.

Nicholas joined the Second Company Army, 69th Division of Heavy Artillery. He spent that time until a furlough in June in the Fort Worden area. He talked a lot about his walks into town, particularly going to the Catholic Church, from which he had postcards. Also he had postcards of many of the other important buildings that were in the town at that time. I do not know much about his time at the base. I know that he enjoyed it here and that he learned to shoot the heavy artillery, the huge guns that were protecting the Strait into Fort Worden and into the town. He left for a furlough in June of 1918. We do have pictures of him on his furlough. He returned to the base and from there he was sent to France.

At some time while he was here, he must have purchased a locket from perhaps a jewelry store, I don’t know where, but he sent my mother a locket with his picture in it. She then in turn had her picture taken with the locket on and sent it back to him. He had that picture in France, I know. There was a letter, my older sister has the letter accompanying that picture. But at any rate, he, because this climate was quite different from Iowa and my father being a farmer, he noticed things like the flowers here, how they would dry out in the summer. I remember him talking about strawberries and apples, but the strawberries in particular were so big and so luscious here. I know he was very impressed with this marine type climate that you have in Port Townsend. He always had good things to say about it. He must have really enjoyed this particular base because he developed quite a comradeship with some of his buddies and I know he used to write to them. I can remember him sending out Christmas cards. I can’t remember the names now but I know that he had nothing but fond memories of this place.

They left Fort Worden to go to the east coast where they would be shipped to France. The day they left was July 31st and they arrived on the east coast on August the 18th. For the trip across the country, they went by rail most of the time and they were treated by the Red Cross often at different points along the way. For their exercise they marched and were off the train and marching. They would then take their swims in the rivers. In particular, one Minnesota river was very cold and dirty, he said, full of clamshells on the bottom. They did do that for the way they could bathe every day. In Chicago, he told about going to Garfield Park where they were at liberty for one hour.

Then they went into Canada because they went past Lake Ontario. They were treated with ice cream at Niagara Falls, and they were granted some liberty at Niagara Falls. In his own words he said, “It sure was a grand sight.” Then the next day they left on the 6th and they arrived in Weehawken, New Jersey.

Then they went by ferry boat across the Hudson River to Camp Mills. It took a little time for them to get onto the boat that they actually shipped out on. The boat that they left the US from was called the FS Jason. It had been used as a transport ship to transport cattle. My father said it was very dirty and messy. Before they could set sail, the soldiers had to clean the ship. Then they hung hammocks, and the hammocks were the soldiers’ beds for the trip across the water. They left on about the 18th and they arrived on the 31st in Portsmouth, England. From there they took a train to Southampton and then they went across the English Channel to Le Havre, France. It was from Le Havre that they went south in France and spent some time in a small town, but mostly their contingent was stationed around Libourne.

Some of the soldiers went to more training or drilling, but my father was one who went to Auto Truck and Caterpillar Driving School for some weeks. Actually they never saw action because by the time they got to France and got situated, the war was almost over and they just didn’t see any action at all, so perhaps that was lucky. Then it took a while for everyone to mobilize and come home because there were so many soldiers over there that they would be told one day that they were going to leave and then they’d postpone it. But in the meantime he read about going to delousing camp. Whatever that entailed I’m not sure. But finally, their 59th Division was given the right to sail and they said after some false starts, they were ready to go.

They came home on the ship “Mercury.” The Mercury was formerly a ship that the Kaisers had used and it was called the Barbarossa before the war. Actually when my father came home, this was the sixth trip across for American troops on that particular ship. They set sail for America on the 4th February 1919.They saw the shores of the US on February 18th. It was a very rough seas and the men were really sick a lot of the time. In fact, I have in the packet part of one of the papers that was published on the ship called “The Mercurial Messenger.” In it they write how they would line up at the rail because they were so sick. They had an Army chaplain along and they spent some time playing cards and doing the things that the men would be doing on the way back. At one point they say they had a mutiny, and actually the mutiny was because of thirst. They said they were looking for something like beer or wine to have along the way. They landed in Virginia at Newport News. They spent a couple of nights at Camp Stuart before riding the train for Camp Eustis in Virginia. Then after that, they were sent off wherever they were to go to their nearest camp from their home. For my father that was Camp Dodge, Iowa, and that’s near Des Moines, Iowa.”

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