WWI comes to Memphis, April-August 1917

Frank (Bud) Latham, 1917

It was the weekend of March 30, 1917, and Jessie was visiting close friends in Covington, Tennessee. Monday, April 2nd she wrote, “J.O. and Drew both wanted dates to-night but the country is so unsettled, so much war news going around that I refused to stay longer. [I] want to be home when war is declared.” Jessie’s train left Covington fairly early that day and arrived in Memphis soon after noon. That evening Jessie wrote in her diary that President Woodrow Wilson had asked the U.S. Congress to declare war.

Frank (Bud) and Swayne Latham, 1917

Monday, April 16th, “Some how ever since I got home I’ve been sad – so much war talk. Then too seeing both Swayne and Bud in their uniforms. Swayne has joined the Chicks and Bud has been transferred to the aviation corps. Here is where I become a red cross nurse.” She didn’t become a nurse, but I feel sure she thought about it. Seeing both of her siblings preparing to depart for war in France made Jessie emotional, sad and lonesome ahead of time. She loved her brothers.

Swayne and Frank (Bud) Latham, 1917

Thursday, April 26, “The night the soldiers left! Swayne came out this morning to tell us good-bye. He seemed such a man when he kissed me good-bye, the tears just streaming down his dear cheeks. Bud got excused this afternoon and came out to tell us good-bye. Never before had I realized what their going really meant. No one knows when they will ever come back. Dear Sweet Bud, how I’ll miss him, for he would always come into my room at night for a talk.” The times were somber. “I’m so sad,” Jessie wrote on May 5th. “Every-body is going away. Every-body I’ve been with lately is planning to leave and it seems all my dates are ‘farewell dates’.

A photo of Jessie’s diary, June 5, 1917. The flag may have been worn on her jacket as she worked the booths.

The 5th of  June, 1917 was the first national registration day for the newly reinstated draft. All young men between the age 21-30 had to register. “I was at some of the booths and assisted in pinning red, white, and blue ribbons on all the men who registered,” and according to Jessie, more than 10 million men across the country registered for war service that day. The mood in Memphis that day was extremely patriotic, starting with a parade downtown in the morning that included 30,000 participants, according to Jessie.

In the meantime there were Theda Bara movies to see, and Charlie Chaplin movies always made Jessie laugh. There were fine cars to ride in. In fact, on May 1st, Jessie had a date with a fellow who drove a Peerless auto. The Peerless Motor Car Co. built high quality luxury autos and were one of the Three Ps of luxury automobiles – Packard, Peerless, and Pierce-Arrow.

During this time Jessie also became better acquainted with a young businessman from Great Britain, Douglas Gardner. He often brought her gifts when he came back from business trips or vacations, and on June 28th he brought Jessie an alligator purse from his vacation in Florida. Once in her diary Jessie speculated that Douglas was probably enjoying himself during this time in Memphis. All the local young men were leaving for the war, and he being British and 32 years of age (and wealthy – he was from an old family whose lumber business had been in operation for over 400 years at that time, since 1590!) was ineligible to serve. So he became a reliable and welcome date for Jessie and a number of  other young women of Jessie’s acquaintance in Memphis during this time.

Alligator purse given to Jessie Latham by Douglas Gardner on June 28, 1917
Jessie Latham, penny picture, July 27, 1917

On July 17th Swayne came home on a 5-day furlough, leaving again for Camp Andrew Jackson in Nashville on July 22nd. Jessie then decided to take a train tour of military camps/forts where some of her friends and Swayne were in training. On July 31st she took the train to Nashville and within a few days ‘fell in love’ with Lieut. Temple (whom she called Temp). In her diary she declared,”I can’t realize it all happened. I was so very happy, it all seems like some wonderful dream. But at present I surely think Temp is the person I’ve been looking for all these years. He said such beautiful things…” (August 4, 1917).  After nine days in Nashville Jessie headed to Signal Mountain in Chattanooga, Tennessee and her soldier friends at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. She spent a few days there. On her way back to Memphis the train stopped in Nashville and Jessie had one last meeting with Temp before he left for France. August 14th was the day of their parting, “We had so much to say and so little time that the principle thing I can remember is Temp’s saying “I love you” over and over… How I did want to go with Temp but I’m going to try and wait until the war is over before I marry him…” So sad! So romantic! Oddly Jessie never mentioned his first name. Then she was back to Memphis and her regular life.

Frank (Bud) Latham sometime during WWI, 1917-18

August 20th Swayne came home on furlough. The next day, the 21st, Bud came home thinking he had 10 days with his family, but the very next day he received a telegram telling him to report immediately. “Bud got a telegram this afternoon to report at once so he had to leave to-night. How I hated to see him go. He is nearer to me than almost anybody in the world. I love him so much. He is so wonderful that surely he will come back.” Bud’s (Frank’s) telegram telling his mother not to worry came on the 23rd.

 

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