In honor of the centennial of World War I, we’re going to follow the experiences of one American soldier: twenty-year-old Forrest W. Bassett, whose letters are held in Spencer’s Kansas Collection. Each Monday we’ll post a new entry, which will feature Bassett’s letters to fifteen-year-old Ava Marie Shaw from that following week, one hundred years after he wrote them.
Frequently mentioned in the letters are Forrest’s older half-sister Blanche Treadway (born 1883), who had married Arthur Poquette in 1904, and Marie’s older sister Ethel (born 1896).
Forrest W. Bassett was born in Beloit, Wisconsin, on December 21, 1897 to Daniel F. and Ida V. Bassett. On July 20, 1917 he was sworn into military service at Jefferson Barracks near St. Louis, Missouri. Soon after, he was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, for training as a radio operator in Company A of the U. S. Signal Corps’ 6th Field Battalion.
This week’s entry highlights include Forrest learning how to erect and operate a field wireless station (“every man must be on the alert and be there with the team-work”) and how to pack it on mules (“the latter are the real Missouri article”). Bassett also struggles with his long distance relationship with Marie, writing that “I will never see you until I come home for good, and that is a long time — at least a year ahead…I am hungry for a sight of you — to look into those soft brown eyes, and hear you talk again.”
Wed. Aug. 8, 1917
Dear Little Girl,
Every time I read your letters you seem so close that I want to reach out and hug you tight. I wish you were that near, but your letters are a great deal of comfort to me, and I hope you wont let even a day slip by. I don’t feel homesick any more, among these fellows, but just that longing for you. It may be a long time before we see each other again, but don’t ever forget how much I love you, and don’t ever doubt it, whatever may turn up.
Everything seems to point out that we go to the East coast headquarters about Sept. 15th. We are working hard — tonight we even drilled after supper during a rain. This morning we had telegraph one hour, wig-wag one hour, and two hours of drill at erecting and operating a field wireless station. The latter is carried on two pack mules. An efficient company can unpack and set up a fifty foot mast and get the set in order in a very few minutes. Every man must be on the alert and be there with the team-work. It is the same with everything and it sure interesting work. We also had an hour of squad drill this morning. Our drill after supper was in forming a company square. In this, the company forms a four sided guard about its officers in the center. In case of attack, like a riot, the men face out and protect their leaders. There are many different marching commands that a solider has to learn to execute in the proper way and at the right instant. In walking lockstep, the soldier’s forward foot had to step ahead of the next man’s rear foot. In order to do this, one has to walk like a Dana. Can you imagine how awkward it is for me? As I said before, we a a good decent bunch of officers, and that helps a lot. We have finished with our shelter tent drills, and the tents are shipped — East, I guess. This afternoon we learned how to pack a field wireless set on the mules. The latter are the real Missouri article and have to be fitted with blinders while being packed. We were just issued some fancy dress gloves of soft olive drab leather. We have to be very particular about our personal appearance — no watch fobs or tips of a handkerchief are allowed to show, and everything must be kept scrubbed clean. Our beds must be made just so and our lockers fixed in a certain way. This all sounds old maidish, but it is simply meant to have everything look the same.
Each of us had to take our turn at serving in the kitchen. I haven’t yet, but have served my day as orderly. Of course we all have our own “housework” to do before first drill call at seven o’clock. A bachelor’s life may be a gay one but give me a good home with a little girl in it. Well the “Lights Out” bugle has just blown so I will have to quit.
Biting your fingernails — I sure am glad that you have rooted out this little weed of weakness. Isn’t it a “grand and glorious feeling” when one’s better (or plus) self wins one of these little scraps with your “minus” self. It takes a long time before you really realize how important these little victories are.
I got a fine letter from your Mother yesterday. Your letter from Field’s came today. Did you get mine? I hope you will have the best of good times in Chicago. I can’t help but feel glad that you are just the least bit lonesome. My folks sure will have a new cousin to be proud of if I have my way about it.
I know I can’t ask you to always like me, but I do ask you to promise to tell me when you feel the least change.
Please don’t show my letters to anyone, especially Lauretta. She is one mighty fine girl but her heart stopped growing long before yours did. (If it has.)
She would laugh and say “O Slush” like you do.
But I think you will understand that I am trying to make you feel how much I do care for you.
Sat. Aug. 11, 1917
Won’t you please “open your heart” and take a chance on my understanding? I will never see you until I come home for good, and that is a long time — at least a year ahead. Please sit on my lap again and tell me everything. I wonder if you think my letters are too “soft” like Edgar & Grace? Do you? Mother sent me the pictures of you eating cherries and the in the canoe with the duck. I can picture you perfectly in your new clothes. Gee, but I am hungry for a sight of you — to look into those soft brown eyes, and hear you talk again. Wont you please talk to me as if we were together? I am going to wait one more week and then I am going to go to the Battallion commander, Moore, and ask him to transfer me to the photo-graphic section of the Signal Corps. Whether I leave here right away, or in six weeks, don’t count on seeing me again till the finish. I wonder why you call yourself my friend. Have you found that you can’t be a little more than that to me? Dear Little Girl, please be perfectly frank with me in everything. You can’t imagine how much I hate any kind of pretense.
We passed the hat here this afternoon and bought a 25 Victor with some records. About 45 of us bunk in this room so we expect to get a good bunch of records. This morning the fourth & fifth sections of Co. A 6th helped unload a shipment of saddle horses and pack mules from El Paso, Texas. Believe me it was a lively job to lead that bunch, two at a time, from the cars to the corral. One fellow from Co.B-6th was sent to the hospital with a mule’s “thumbprint” on his chest. We were off this afternoon so I went to Leavenworth City, which is little larger than Beloit. A lot of fellows went to Kansas City for over Sunday. I am pretty near broke again as I won’t get last month’s pay until September. Blanche sent me some stamps — will you feel peeved if I pass some on to you? I don’t think your Mother will mind very much because you spoke on the stage. Congratulations etc. Now you will have to stop biting you nails.
I got Vera’s card alright. And yours too, today. Did Lauretta get my letter? Be sure to tell me soon enough when you Chi. so none of my letters will there after your gone.
Sunday, Aug. 12, 1917
I only have time for a short note tonight but want to write so you won’t forget to write me. That’s the one big favor you can do me while I’m away. Did you like Riverview? I sure do wish I could be there with you. You and Vera must have had about the same luck on the “Chute the Chutes” as we did on the Giant dips when the car jumped the track. Here’s hoping you and L. will have a gay time Tuesday night. I am glad Lauretta interested you in hiking — go to it. You can bet we will go bike riding, too, when I get back. Gee but I get tired of saying “when I get back.” No danger of any hiking ever “killing” you. But don’t try any of Lauretta’s tricks. She carries it too far – nothing is gained by breaking one’s arch.
Also, hiking is not worth while unless you really do like it. I do hope you will learn to swim. Did you get the wings O.K? How was the Lake? The last time I was in was at Sheboygan. My folks would not treat you very nice unless they liked you pretty well, and I am mighty glad they do, but not a bit surprised.
What pleases me the most, though, is that Blanche likes you so much. She writes that you “have wrapped yourself around her heart” and that “you are a dear, sweet, Marie.” Blanche is no hypocrite and when she can say that in such a sincere way, I know I am make no mistake in loving you. Say how much does Blanche know anyway? She is one mighty fine sister and comes next to you in my regards, so you see I am pretty fond of her. Gee, but the postscript to your last letter, Sat. 11th, sure did stir up a happy feeling here. I wonder if you write that way just to “cheer me up.” Don’t do it again if that’s it. I do need to be cheered a little though, for I am all out-o-luck. Starting with this morning I have take my turn in the mess hall for a week, “slinging hash” to this crew of Signal men. I don’t have to wash any dishes but have to push the broom and mop and set the table etc.
All this from 5:15 A:M. until 7:15 P.M. Can you beat it? But then, everyone has to take a shot at it, except the officers. At noon, George Stock brought your letter down to me, but I didn’t get a chance to open it until about 3:00P.M.
Can you imagine how anxious I was to read it? Maybe — but you don’t know how happy I felt after I had read every word for the fourth time. So please write everyday if you can – at least until school starts.
The “lights out” bugle just blew and I had to go down in the basement to finish this. I know this writing is awful — Can you read it alright?