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World War I Correspondence Collections in the Veterans History Project

Frank Van Pelt

Image of a field found in letter dated 2/22/1919. Frank Van Pelt Collection. Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

Units: Company A, 101st Field Signal Battalion, 26th Division, American Expeditionary Force (AEF)
Branch of Service: Army
Rank: Sergeant First Class

"The queerest sight I believe of the whole battle, was a pair of German prisoners, an American, and a Frenchman carrying in a wounded Austrian on a stretcher. In battle, the worst of enemies. In trouble, no such thing as hatred exists.” (Letter to Sister Pearle, September 17, 1918)

Frank Van Pelt was born in Arkansas City, Kansas, on July 14, 1890, the fifth child out of nine. When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Van Pelt was employed as a telegraph operator for the St. Louis–San Francisco Railway. He volunteered for the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), enlisting on June 1, 1917 rather than find himself drafted in what was then known as the "Great War." He viewed the United States' involvement in the war in Europe unnecessary, later describing in his memoirs that the U.S.'s "only justification was, to protect some one's dollars." Despite this distrust with America's rationale for entering the war, he again volunteered himself to be sent to France before the rest of his outfit. Assigned to the 101st Field Signal Battalion, Van Pelt was in five different units from April 1917 to May 1918, thus finding it difficult to bond with his fellow soldiers when he was repeatedly relocated. A native of Oklahoma, Van Pelt primarily served with Company A, 101st Field Signal Battalion as a wireless operator during his period in France, a company dominated by mobilized Massachusetts National Guardsmen, such as Edgar D. Andrews. Van Pelt was involved in several battles and offensives including the Aisne-Maine Offensive and Château-Thierry.

Whenever stationed at the front, his duties as a radio operator included documenting everything and anything broadcasted in shifts of four hours, including all coded transmissions broadcasted by the Germans. Van Pelt went to the front multiple times from spring of 1918 to November, 1918, and his correspondence touches on difficult experiences and sights—he would write more candidly about such events in his eventual memoir. By April of 1919 he was on a boat back to the United States. Returning to Oklahoma after serving with the AEF for a year and eleven months, Van Pelt immediately received an offer from the San Francisco, the Santa Fe, and MK&T Railroad companies and returned to his previous work of "railroading" as a telegraph operator.

In his memoir of his World War I experiences written in 1931, Van Pelt wrote more explicitly about the brutal, often upsetting sights he witnessed during his service. The memoir is directed to his children and Van Pelt plainly states that while he did not regret his involvement in the war he hoped the U.S. would never enter another.

Letters While Training Stateside

Van Pelt was a proficient letter writer, often writing ten page letters to his sisters, nieces and parents. He had a habit of writing letters that included phonetic spellings of words. It is unclear whether these misspellings are purposeful for comedic effect or accidental, but all quotations found here reflect Van Pelt's original spelling style. The bulk of his letters are from his period training at Ft. Leavenworth and later in New Jersey. The entire series of these letters can be viewed on Van Pelt's Veteran History Project collection's story page.

Request for a "Knitted Helmet"

Van Pelt requested his sisters make him a "knitted helmet," what we might call a balaclava today, as this type of warm weather gear was hard to come by during the war. Providing a rather descriptive overview of this head gear, Van Pelt hoped one of his sisters would be able to find a pattern to knit the helmet in the Army sanctioned color of khaki. This "Helmet Affair" appears in a number of his letters home. Ultimately Van Pelt and his fellow soldiers were provided knitted helmets, among other knitted winter weather gear, by the American Red Cross. The entire series of these letters can be viewed on Van Pelt's Veteran History Project collection's story page.

Did you ever see a Helmet? I mean a knitted one...I wouldn't ask you to trouble with this, but it is impossible to buy one, & I would certainly love to have I guess that this "Helmet Affair" is all I can think of to trouble you with.

Letters From France

Van Pelt went to the front multiple times as a radio operator, witnessing sights of the trenches and "No Man's Land;" seen by those involved in the conflict. Many of his letters describe the months following Armistice Day on November 11, 1918. Here Van Pelt recounts his division's parading for President Wilson and General Pershing, time still spent training for a "make believe war;" and at the coldest time of the year, and just how much time has passed as his extended family has continued to grow in size. The entire series of these letters can be viewed on Van Pelt's Veteran History Project collection's story page.

An Honest Memoir

"I am grateful, and glad that I was able to serve my Country, and glad that I had the foregoing experiences, even though I did not feel that our Country was justified in joining that Fray, BUT, I hope that it will NEVER become necessary for any Nations young men to become embroiled in another war."

Ten years after Van Pelt's World War I experience, he wrote a memoir directed to his three children where he discussed candidly his thoughts and memories of this great war. Van Pelt is often critical of his own involvement the war, but his memoir is filled with humorous asides and stark and tragic observations of war.

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