Thursday, November 11, 2004

The Bernitt Boys in WWI

Today is the anniversary of the official end of World War I, originally celebrated as Armistice Day. It seems appropriate to honor the two the brothers of Nellie (Bernitt) Kolm, who volunteered to serve the United States. Jack Bernitt served as an airplane mechanic in France and returned to America. His brother Sidney Bernitt died before even reaching European soil.

Sidney Bernitt

Sidney Walter Bernitt was born on February 26, 1889 in Marshfield (now Coos Bay), Oregon. Sidney worked for the postal service, both in Oregon and in Globe, Arizona. After war broke out, Sidney attempted to enlist several times, but had difficulties getting his release from the civil service, in addition to a slight heart problem.

Eventually, Sidney overcame these obsticles, and enlisted in the US Army in the Fall of 1917, joining Company D of the 6th Battalion of the 20th Engineers. During WWI this was a "Forest Engineer" regiment that provided construction materials to the American Expiditionary Forces in France, with most of the recruits from areas with an active timber industry, including the Pacific Northwest.

On January 23, 1918 the 6th Batallion of the 20th Engineers boarded the troopship Tuscania in New Jersey bound for Le Havre. The ship proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia, then, escorted by British destroyers, the ship made it's way across the Atlantic. Fourteen days into the trip, on February 5, the Tuscaniawas torpedoed by a German submarine. They were within sight of land, just of the Scottish Hebrides. Only a few of the lifeboats were successfully launched, but the troops remaining on the sinking ship remained calm.
With the lifeboats gone together with the rafts, the situation looked none too encouraging. The boys showed few signs of nervousness. Standing there, lining the rail, waiting for the next development, some six hundred of them smoked or talked quietly, discussing their plight. The remarkable part of it all was that they took everything in a matter - of - fact way with a sort of ''well, what's next?'' attitude. Occasionally few would sing some little song, indicative of their feelings, such as ''Where Do We Go From Here, Boys?'' or "To Hell with the Kaiser.'' The absence of any panic, or effort and time in prayer was notable. A casual observer might, had he acquired a few snatches of the conversation, have thought the latter practice was being indulged in. A closer observer would have revealed a collection of wonderful expressions from vocabularies replete with all the known cuss words in existence. The objects remarks were chiefly the Uboats, the Kaiser, the Germans the authorities criminally neglectful of the safety of the troops. (Link - other accounts have the troops singing "The Star Spangled Banner" and "God Save the King")

Most of the troops were rescued from the slowly sinking ship. Sadly, Sidney Bernitt was one of the 200 American soldiers who did not survive.

- Web site honoring the 20th Engineers
- Map of the sinking of the Tuscania
- Roster of Company D, 6th Battalion, 20th Engineers aboard the Tuscania.
- Eyewitness account of the sinking, by Irwin Cobb (published in the Saturday Evening Post)
-Memorial honoring those who died in the sinking of the Tuscania and Otranto on the Isle of Islay

(Edit January 2006: Be sure to read the update to this post.)

Jack Bernitt

John Augustus "Jack" Bernitt was born April 3, 1887, in Marshfield (Coos Bay), Oregon. Jack left home as a young man, supposely having "little to do with the family". By 1916 he was living in Cashmere in Chelan County, Washington, where he worked as a mechanic.

On August 6, 1917, at the age of 28, Jack enlisted at Fort Lawton. He was shipped to France, where he served with the U. S. Aviation Service as an airplane mechanic. Jack was promoted to Sergent on April 19, 1918.

Despite his supposed estrangement from the family, his sisters awaited his return. On May 27, 1919, Martha Bernitt wrote to her sister Nellie (Bernitt) Kolm, living in Portland:
John arrived in N.Y. with 644, Sat 24. Watch for him on way to Camp Lewis in couple of weeks.
He was discharged on June 12, 1919 and returned to Chelan County. There he married, and continued working as a mechanic until his death in 1970.

- Service record from the Washington State Digital Archive.
- History of the U. S. Air Service and Lafaetty Escadrille in France during WWI.

The Home Front

Life was difficult at home in Oregon, as well, particularly for those of German descent. Edward and Elise (Hilmers) Bernitt were both immigrated from Holstein, to the Coos Bay area. Their children and grandchildren were affected by the anti-German sentiment during the first world war. German language newspapers were censored, and the State Council of Defense for Oregon prohibited church services in German.
It was this propaganda that fueled the passions of Americans, both good and bad. To be sure, the committee reminded the nation that it was fighting for democracy and freedom. And its propaganda helped sell war bonds and promote positive actions such as reducing absenteeism in factories. But its releases also raised hysteria by portraying Germans as Huns, evil creatures perpetrating atrocities as part of their greedy aim to conquer the world. The committee hinted that German spies were hiding around every corner; that any work stoppages were tantamount to treason; that any dissent was unpatriotic; and that socialists and pacifists were secretly sympathizing with the enemy. (From the Oregon at War site: "To Be an American")
"Hamburgers" sounded too German, so they were called "liberty sandwiches". German pretzels were supposedly removed from lunch counters.

All of this had a lasting effect on Nellie (Bernitt) Kolm's son, Lee Kolm, who recalled:
I was descended from German grandparents and I felt WW I very much. Teachers told us how hateful, mean, and brutal were the Germans. Kaiser Bill and the Huns were considered barbaric people; savages, if you will. My Mother got me very mad by teasing me and calling me her little "Hun". I was about 6 or 7 years old and I have never forgotten my Mother's taunts. She was a kidder, but it was never funny to me.
When the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1919, celebrations broke out all over Oregon.
People grabbed anything that would make noise to add to the din as cow bells, tin cans and pans, whistles, buckets, sirens, saw blades, and 5-cent horns were drafted into service for impromptu bands. One woman was seen holding up an alarm clock and repeatedly turning the alarm key to do her part for the noise. Traffic reached a standstill in many places as police worked in vain to keep up. Cars and trucks, overloaded with human cargo, crawled along as the passengers yelled and waved flags. Oregonians released pent up hatred of German Kaiser Wilhelm with a vengeance during the spontaneous parades through the streets of Portland. Several effigies of the Kaiser paraded through the throngs of celebrants. One was dangling at the end of swaying rope. ("After the War")
Eventually life returned to "normal", with those that served and did not return living on in the memories of their families and friends.

Other Links:
- Oregon at War (an excellent site run by the Oregon State Archives)
- Oregon WWI death roll by county.
- Wikipedia article on Armistice Day.

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At 2:26 PM, Blogger Jackie said...

Peggy, thanks for this very moving account of the Bernitt men during WW1. I also enjoyed the account of German-Americans in Oregon during that time. My mother, Esther Kraus (Mabry), had similar memories as a German-American girl in the small, mostly German, town of Columbia, Illinois. Some members of her family and people in the community changed their names so that they did not sound so Germanic.


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