Carl Gresham was a familiar figure around Norcross for much of the 20 th century, working for retail merchants in town and living on Wingo Street, just around the corner from downtown, for 50 years or more. But early in his life he spent a year in the US Army, serving his country in France during the Great War (now called World War I). In this article we look back on his life and his service to our country.
Carl’s parents, Silas and Mary Lougenia Gresham, married in 1889 and raised a family of five children in Snellville and then Duluth in the early 1900s, with Silas working as a farmer and later as a salesman in a retail business. Carl was born in 1893 and was working as a clerk in a Duluth drug store in his early 20s when the United States entered World War I. He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, as was required for all men in his age group at that time.
He was called to serve the next spring and on April 26, 1918 he was sent from Lawrenceville to Camp Gordon, a training center established in Chamblee the previous fall (where Peachtree DeKalb Airport is located today.) Two weeks later he was assigned to a medical unit (Camp Hospital #120) - perhaps the Army thought he was suited for this posting because of his prior work in a drug store in Duluth. A short time later Carl’s unit was loaded onto trains and they shipped out to Camp Merritt in New Jersey, near New York City, and from there they sailed by convoy to Europe. In France Carl was assigned to a mobile field hospital (Mobile Unit #3) and served in that unit until the end of the war several months later. The mobile hospitals were designed to be close support for the infantry, located near the front lines and being the first medical units dealing with the casualties as they occurred. Though an armistice agreement ended the fighting on November 11, 1918, it was the following July before Carl was able to get transportation back to the USA.
The photo below shows Carl in uniform.
One of the soldiers in Carl’s unit, William R Coffing of Missouri, served with Carl in Mobile Unit #3 for the duration of their service. Mr. Coffing wrote a lengthy letter to his father at the end of November 1918 describing his previous 6 months of army service. His description of the unit’s travel to France and service there applies to Carl’s service in 1918 as well, and we include it here as a result. (Coffing’s letter was published in the February 2004 issue of TAMS, the journal of the Tokens and Medals Society, and is reproduced in part here).
I am going to write and tell you, all that has happened since I left America and I trust this letter will reach you on or before Xmas.
We left Camp Merrit last June on the ship Missanaka. I think there were fifteen troop ships in the convoy. We were well looked after on the way over and nothing out of the ordinary run of things took place. We landed in Liverpool, England June 26th. From Liverpool we went across England to South Hampton. We left South Hampton the evening of June 27th. Crossed the English Channel that night, and landed at Cherbourg, France. From Cherbourg, we went to Blais. Made the trip which took twenty-four hours in box cars. There was a sign on the side of the car which read Eight Horses or 36 to 40 Men.
Was assigned to Mobile #3 after I got to Blais. Came up to Paris and stayed fifteen days. Some of our unit, including myself were sent on detached service, on July 17th when we got off the train we found ourselves back of the Chateau Thiery fight which is also called the Second Battle of the Marne. We were sent down there to help a hospital which was in need of men.
Stayed there about three weeks. When we got there, we could hear the roar of battle and at night we could see the flashes of the guns. That state of affairs didn't last long, as the boys chased the Dutch [perhaps Coffing is referring to the Deutsche, or Germans?] so far, we could no longer hear the report of the cannon. After the Second Battle of the Marne we returned to Paris and rejoined the company. Stayed there a short time.
We got orders to move and we load our equipment on a train and came up to the Toul front. We were behind the Sept, fight at St. Mihiel and Montsec. Heard the barrage, which the American artillery handed the Germans, the night the battle opened it was some serenade.
The boys went over the top the next morning and you know what they did to the Huns in September. They captured Montsec and ran Fritz ragged. After the battle we moved to our present location which is near Toul, France. We were pretty close to the front, when we moved down here. Could hear the cannon, and the sky was lighted up at night.
The German aeroplanes used to come over quite often, in fact almost every night, that wasn't too dark for flying. The search light would be turned on and the anti aircraft guns would get busy when Fritz was in the air. We could sometimes hear the drone of the air plane's motor and one night we saw one. He got caught in the ray of the search light. The gunners were slipping him some shrapnel.
Things have quieted down since Nov. 11th. The guns roared the night of the tenth and were still going when I went to bed at 7:30 am Nov. 11th. Everything was quiet when I got up. I happened to be on night duty at that time.
While he was not wounded in combat, Carl’s health was severely affected by his World War I service. Some years after the war he sought help with his health problems from the Veterans Administration, and Roy C. Hart of Pennsylvania, who had served with Carl in Europe, wrote a letter to the VA in support of Carl’s request. Hart stated:
Subject -- Physical health, Carl Gresham, Norcross, Georgia
To whom it may concern:
The undersigned, having served with Carl Gresham, Private, Base Hospital, Camp Gordon Ga, for a period of eight or nine months, can testify that his health was in the pink of condition while in Camp Gordon, and was present as Orderly to Adj. Marcus of said hospital when said Carl Gresham received his final examination for overseas, for said papers were passed and signed in my presence.
Also accompanied said Gresham to port of debarkation and overseas, assigned with Mobile Hospital #3 and Evacuation Hospital #120, for a period collectively for eleven months. His general health was excellent, until in the Tour sector, he was exposed to the elements of front line duty, as required by service in action, and was sent on several occasions to the rear, to a hospital by orders of Co. Coe, commanding for general breakdown, nervousness, stomach and internal disordters, also was furlowed to the rear, I think Paris, to have his eyes examined and glasses fitted for defective vision.
I would say that in a big degree that his broken health and vision was directly due to the condition subjected by him to faithful and exposed service to the A. E. F.
- The Colonel Coe referred to here was Henry Clark Coe, the commanding officer of Mobile Unit #3, who was a professor of medicine at New York University in civilian life, and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery, according to informaion from Find a Grave. (He is shown in the photo with nurses in the unit, below.)
- “A. E. F.” is an abbreviation for American Expeditionary Force, which was the overall name for
the millions of troops sent by the United States to serve in France during World War I.
Carl’s granddaughters recall that their grandfather discontinued driving at a relatively early age due to problems with his eyesight, and that he said that these problems had been a result of German gas attacks on the area where his hospital had been located during his wartime service.
There were a number of nurses assigned to MOB3, as shown in the photo taken below in May, 1919, prior to the unit’s return to the USA.
There were approximately 100,000 US casualties incurred during World War I, and it is estimated that half of those were due to illness. A nurse in this mobile hospital unit, Charlotte Schonheit of Detroit, Michigan, was one of these – she survived her time in proximity to the battles of the fall of 1918, but died of bronchial pneumonia on Dec 6, 1918, less than a month after the conflict ended.
Her death evidently hit Carl and her other coworkers especially hard, since his family recalls that he spoke of her service often over the years when he was living in Norcross. Below are photos of Ms. Schonheit, the grave marker in the St. Mihiel cemetery in France where she is buried (these two photos were found on the Find a Grave website), and the decorations at her grave at her burial.
Carl Gresham and the soldiers in his unit had some opportunity to visit areas of France around Le Mans, where he was stationed after the fighting ended, as they waited to be shipped back home. The photo below shows soldiers grouping for an excursion planned by the YMCA in June 1919.
Solesmes Benedictine abbey, about 35 miles from Le Mans, was one of the places that Carl visited – see the photo below, found on a postcard that he brought back to America from his time in the service.
Carl returned to the USA from France in July, 1919 on the USS South Bend, a then-recently-built cargo ship that had been taken over by the US Navy to transport troops from Europe back to the USA. The photo below shows the ship as it approached New York harbor – note that a large contingent of troops on board were out on the deck, evidently anxious to see the homeland again. (Photo courtesy of ancestry.com.)
Carl married local girl Maggie Cook a few months after returning to Georgia, and they moved from Duluth to Norcross a short time later. In Norcross they lived at first in the building at 189 Lawrenceville Street (in which the Norcross Welcome Center is located today). Later they purchased the home at 60 Wingo Street from Maggie’s mother and lived there for the rest of their time together. They raised a family of three children. Maggie passed away in 1946, and Carl in 1983 when he was 90 years old. Carl and Maggie, shown in the photo below around the time of their marriage, are buried together in the Duluth Church Cemetery.
The photo below shows Carl standing on South Peachtree Street in Norcross. He worked for many years at Parsons Store, which was located in the two-story building shown behind him.
It was clear that Carl Gresham’s service during World War I had a big impact on his life. Not only was it the cause of health problems that followed him for the rest of his days, but it had created vivid memories. These were especially evident every year on Armistice Day, November 11, the anniversary of the date in 1918 when the slaughter in Europe came to an end. Carl Garner Jr. recalled that every year Carl Gresham reminded all his acquaintances in Norcross of the importance of the day.
Many thanks for Maggie Mugg, Parrie Lea Roth, Carl Garner Jr. and Richard Garner for their help in writing this article. Other sources are sited in the text above. All photographs came from the Gresham family, unless otherwise stated in the text above.