This post comes from a special guest blogger, an individual that reached out to us from the States a few weeks ago to tell us about her family in Illinois, its connection to World War One, and the previously untold story of a young man, her great uncle, who is buried in the Suresnes American Cemetery. She was mentioned briefly a few weeks ago in our blog about the powerful connections beyond the classroom that we've enjoyed throughout the Monuments Project. We're pleased to share her family's story more fully here, in her own words.
"it might be the Last time I'll heare from you."
Lois Thor Herbst
A gift...that is how our connection to the Monuments Project began. My father, Stan, will be 85 years old on July 24. He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He is a licensed electrician, along with many talents; there’s not much he can’t fix or repair. To this day, he has a tool repair business from his home. All his life he has volunteered doing electrical work and other repairs for his school and church in his hometown. This is the same Catholic church his Uncle Louis attended, the same church my parents and I were all baptized, made our first holy communion, confirmation, and were married in. Dad would talk about Uncle Louis from time to time. Not much, but enough to tell me he held a special place in his heart.
I help my father all I can; we are very close. Together we enjoy what time we have left exploring our family’s history. I was working on a birthday present for him, trying to find all I can about Louis, when I found The Monuments Project.
From the path I had to take which lead me to this connection, one would think with technology today it would be easy. First I searched on the internet for the cemetery with the information the family was sent in 1918, but nothing would match. I then started calling National cemeteries in the United States. This took a number of phone calls. I was thinking if I contacted the National cemetery from where Louis came from, Wisconsin, they would have his information. That was not the case. I’m not sure how many phone calls I made, until I was given a number for the American Battle Monuments Commission in Virginia. It is at this number, I was given the present day burial information on Louis. I was also given a website to look up the cemetery online; this is where I made the connection to The Monuments Project. Then I reached out, to share the story of my father's uncle and my great uncle:
Pvt. Louis B. Thor
World War 1
It was fitting that Ludwig Bernard Thor was born on a Thursday or Thor’s day, April 10, 1890 in Grant County, Wisconsin. Having seven sisters and three brothers, he was the youngest, the eleventh child born to Johann Joseph Michael Thor and Anna Maria Elisabeth Kruser. Friends, family and those who knew him called him Louis or Louie.
His parents, Michael and Mary, were both baptized Catholic and raised their children that way. Louis was baptized, being named after his sponsors Ludwig and Bernadine Metz on April 19, 1890. At the age of fourteen, he made his solemn communion, and one year later was confirmed, all in Immaculate Conception Catholic Church, Kieler, Wisconsin. (Birth, baptism, solemn communion, and confirmation dates are taken from the record books at the Immaculate Conception parish. The birth date on his registration card was recorded as something different.)
He was born and raised on the family farm, in a rural farming community in Paris Township, Grant County, Wisconsin. His father, Michael, also owned land in Jamestown Township, Grant County, Wisconsin.
School was attended if weather and farm work permitted. Louis would have attended a one room wooden school house at least 12 weeks out of the year from the age of 7 to 14, educational requirements of that time.
He worked the farm along side of his father and one of his brothers, August. Gust is how his brother wrote his name; over time it changed to Gus. Gus was a little over five years older than Louis. Gus was my grandfather. Out of all the siblings, Gus and Louis were the closest, doing much together. Gus stood taller than Louis.
Louis enjoyed going to Kimball Park, which was an amusement park on an island, that you had to pay 5 cents each way to ride the ferry to get to it. Once on the island, customers enjoyed a dance hall, a saloon, gambling, and a variety of food and entertainment.
At the age of 25, Louis bought a car, a Model-81 1915 Overland. He kept the receipt that reads it is from Kimbel Park, Dubuque Overland Sales Co. He paid 575 dollars for it. Up to this point, cars had hand cracks to get them started. This car had an electrical starter, which was very appealing to buyers; however, the starter (along with much else) weren’t very reliable, so most had an auxiliary removable crank as well. He got a good deal, cost of a new model was 850 dollars. If a hill was too steep everyone had to get out of the car and push. But once going at 25 mph that was “moving right along.” Top speed was 40 mph. Up to five could enjoy the breeze blowing through their hair with the top down, for those special “trips to town.”
Many a trip was made with horse and wagon to take the cream from the farm to the creamery. Over time, Louis went to work for his brother-in-law, Val Droessler, at the Louisburg Butter and Cheese Company. It is noted that this creamery won many awards in exhibits that they entered. My dad remembers going to visit Val at the creamery, and he would give them saltine crackers and fresh butter. “That was a big treat back then.”, dad would tell us. Louis also worked as a hired farm hand for his sister and her husband. At the time of his registration, he was living with them in Potosi, Wisconsin.
Monday, June 4, 1917, the price to buy The Telegraph-Herald, the local paper, was 2 cents, to read the front page headlines, NATION IS READY FOR REGISTRATION. The first registration for World War 1 was the next day, Tuesday, June 5, 1917. All men between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-one, born between June 6, 1886 and June 5, 1896 were called. Louis was 27 years old and was born in 1890, so he registered.
The weather forecast for that day called for unsettled weather, with storms and thunderstorms. That was not the only thing that was unsettling at that time, one would have to assume Louis was very nervous when he signed his name on his registration card, since he spelled his middle name incorrectly.
His call to duty started by boarding a bus thirteen months later in Lancaster, Wisconsin. It was his close brother, Gus, that took him; he was the only person to say his “Good-byes” when Louis left Lancaster. (Louis was single, he never married.) After passing his physical exam standing 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighing 148 pounds, with light brown hair, and gray eyes. He was on his way to Camp Grant, Rockford, Illinois.
He got some time on a Sunday to write his first letter to Gust; it was July 28, 1918. Previously he sent some of his clothes home by parcel post, and he wanted to make sure Gust would put it away for him. He ended the letter with “be shore and write to me. My address is Louis Bernard Thor, Company 38-161st Depot Brigade, Camp Grant, ill, 824 S. Barracks.”
With that information, a few weeks later Gust made the 95 mile trip to Rockford to visit Louis. When Gust arrived, they were unable to locate Louis. He was moved from one barracks to another and put in Company B, 311th Engineers.
Word was given to Louis that his brother had been there looking for him. It was weighing heavily on his heart. Louis wrote a second letter to Gust on August 9th and started his letter with “ Heard you was don heare. I wish I met you. If you shood come heare again, you Be Shore and ask the last Place. Ask them weare I Went to.” Missing home was further setting in on Louis. He wrote “bleave me, i am glad when this Life is over.” At the time, neither of them knew that their last face-to-face visit was lost forever.
The next few weeks, Louis and Gus kept in contact by writing what news they had to share to each other. The last correspondence we have from Louis to Gust is dated August 29, 1918. Louis had just arrived in Camp Mills, New York. In his second line in his letter, he writes “ I ant filling god.” He then goes on to write “We ar going over pearty son. I wood Like to hear from you before we goe over. it might be the Last time I’ll heare from you.” He ended his letter saying “I don’t know any body, heare, all strangers, no friends from Home Heare.” These were the last few words from Louis who was lonely, not feeling well, and miles from home.
Camp Mills was at its peak in September of 1918. This is where the American troops waited until they could be scheduled for embarkation. With the number of soldiers, the confinement, and the conditions, the influenza pandemic was also reaching its peak; it was closely intertwined with the military and the number effected were increasing each day.
Louis, along with his Company “B” 311 Engineers, waited at the camp until they were called to travel by train on the Long Island Rail Road to board a ferryboat to the pier of Hoboken, New Jersey. On September 9, 1918, being passenger number 188, Louis, along with the other privates, were given third class and departed New York on the Empress Of Asia bound for Liverpool. After twelve days of close quarters on the ocean liner, he arrived in France on September 21, 1918.
At what point or which day Louis was taken to Base Hospital No. 22, we do not know; but by the beginning of October 1918 the epidemic of the Spanish flu and pneumonia brought in over two thousand patients to this base hospital. Louis was one of them. On Sunday, October 6, 1918, he passed away from pneumonia.
Almost two months after Louis passed away, the family was sent word of his death by Western Union Telegram on December 2, 1918 from Washington D.C. to 494 Main Street Dubuque, Iowa, for Mr. Gust Thor. Four days later, a letter was written by the Chief Graves Registration Service, American E.F. France, telling the family:
Subject: Place of Burial:
Private Louis Bennard Thor, Co. B, 311th Engrs.
Died: October 6th, 1918
American Cemetery, Merignac, Bordeaux, Gironde, France
Gust tried to get additional information about Louis’ passing by writing letters. “No further information” is what the family received for months in return. Louis had left Gust in charge if anything happened to him, so it was Gust who advised them to keep Louis in France and bury him where he died.
Back home, even though it was far from the origin of the Spanish flu, the small town had a number of members fall victim to the effects of the disease. Louis’ sister-in-law and Gust’s wife, Mayme, fell victim and while Gus was grieving the lose of his brother in France, his own wife passed away on March 2, 1919. Three days after Mayme died, her father passed away from the disease.
Two and half months later, Gust received a letter that gave him some details of Louis and his death. The letter was dated May 27, 1919 and read, “The date of his burial was Oct. 6 and the date of his death Oct. 5. He is buried in grave No. 17, in American E. F. Cemetery No. 27.” It was from Louis Watson the Chaplain, 311 Engineers.
Almost a year had passed when a certificate came from the Army of the United States of America stating LOUIS B. THOR died with honor in the service of his country; it was dated September 1919.
I gave Dad his birthday present early. I told him about my quest to get him information and a picture of Louis’ monument and the connection I found with the students working on the Monuments Project, researching the soldiers in the cemetery where Louis is buried, the Suresnes American Cemetery.
I can not put into words how happy he is now when we talk about Louis and to know others want to learn about him. To put a face to the name on his monument, we feel that keeps his heart beating, gives him life, keeps his story alive. We can not place our hands on his monument, but knowing they can do that for us is a wonderful gift.
Lois Thor Herbst
May 19, 2017