Like their 32nd Division brethren 100 years ago, many Soldiers and Airmen of the Wisconsin National Guard will celebrate this Thanksgiving Day far from home as they fulfill mission as the primary combat reserve of the Army and Air Force with an active slate of global security missions.
Airmen from Milwaukee’s 128th Refueling Wing, Wisconsin Air National Guard, continue to deploy globally and Soldiers from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 248th Aviation Support Battalion deployed to the Middle East in September. Meanwhile, another group of aviators deployed in November to Afghanistan and another 150 Soldiers from the Madison-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation remain deployed to Kuwait and Iraq.
Thanksgiving, a time for friends and family to gather and celebrate, is an important holiday within the military and especially for those troops spending it far away from home in service of the defense of the United States.
For the majority of the 15,000 Soldiers of the Wisconsin National Guard and the 8,000 more from Michigan training as the 32nd Division at Camp MacArthur near Waco, Texas, in 1917 for World War I, it was their first Thanksgiving away from home.
The division command understood the holiday’s importance and limited duty to only essential personnel such as sentries, cooks and hospital staff — everyone else had the day off. The Army also ensured that every Soldier received the heartiest of Thanksgiving dinners by providing ample rations for unit mess halls to prepare.
“There being expert cooks and mess sergeants throughout the camp, and all out-did themselves today in their pride in giving the men of their companies something to make the day joyful,” said an article in the Waco Morning News.
Sgt. Tom Reynolds, a mess sergeant in the 119th Field Artillery, had worked for a dozen years at New York’s finest hotels and served his unit a multi-course meal featuring red snapper, potatoes au gratin, roast turkey, oyster dressing, and baked candied yams. Also included were various relishes, salads, desserts, beverages, and cigars.
Sheboygan’s Company C, 127th Infantry Regiment started Thanksgiving Day with the rare Army pleasure of sleeping in and enjoying free time all morning. Dinner at noon consisted of ample amounts of turkey, mashed potatoes, cabbage, and other sides. For dessert, homemade pies paired well with a supply of cigars sent by Sheboygan’s Northern Furniture Company.
Remarked one Soldier about the day, “Life would be worth living in the Army if every day was the equal of today with nothing to do and all you want to eat.”
After dinner, many Company C troops ventured to downtown Waco or one of Camp MacArthur’s YMCA recreation buildings. Others watched the 32nd Division football team destroy 39-0 the Aggies of Oklahoma A&M (present-day Oklahoma State). Meanwhile, Cpl. Edgar Kallenberg married his girlfriend Helena Steinhardt, who had traveled to Texas earlier in the week.
Steinhardt was one of numerous family members from Wisconsin and Michigan who trekked to Waco to celebrate Thanksgiving and see their fathers, sons, husbands, and brothers one last time before they shipped out for France.
Another was renowned painter Georgia O’Keeffe, a native of Sun Prairie, Wisconsin. She traveled to visit her brother Alexis, who was an engineer within the division. In a letter to her future husband, O’Keeffe spoke of the good time of seeing her brother, but also of his friend who “looked so forlorn, he won’t see his people or his girl again before they go over.”
The entire experience at Camp MacArthur inspired O’Keeffe to paint “The Flag,” a red and blue watercolor that represented her anxiety about her brother going off to a brutal, distant war. Currently located at the Milwaukee Art Museum, many art critics considered the painting as one of O’Keeffe’s most profound works.
Some Soldiers bypassed their unit’s Thanksgiving feast because they had an invitation to attend dinner with one of the many Waco families who opened their homes to the men of Wisconsin and Michigan.
Mary Kemendo Sendon in a Texas History Collection oral interview described how her father and other Waco residents invited Soldiers to their home for Thanksgiving dinner.
“Waco people invited Soldiers to have Thanksgiving with them,” said Sendon. “I remember my father inviting them on Thanksgiving. Those boys were so hungry; my mother just kept pushing the food at them and pushing food at them.”
After dinner, the troops retired to the living room to look at pictures, read and talk. Naturally, some of them succumbed to the effects of the feast.
“Two of them sat there and went to sleep for about two hours sitting there on the couch with their head thrown back. I’ve always remembered the sight of those two boys,” Sendon said. “They were so friendly, those boys from Michigan and Wisconsin.”
Unfortunately, Thanksgiving Day was also a somber affair for two 32nd Division units. The men of Supply Company, 121st Field Artillery escorted Pvt. Carl Hanson’s casket to the train station early that morning for the final journey to Waterford, Wisconsin. Hanson had died the night prior when hit by a streetcar in Waco.
Meanwhile, Company I, 126th Infantry gathered for a morning military funeral of Pvt. Fred M. Meyers, who had died earlier that week at the camp hospital. The unit escorted Meyers for an early train bound for Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, as the bugler blew Taps.
The next day, the entire division enjoyed a second day off from training; however, it did work off the previous day’s dinner competing at a divisional field meet featuring various athletic and military skill events.