A Letter from Camp Devens, 1918

Earl Overbaugh (in uniform) and his mother, Janet Overbaugh: Waterbury, CT; 1919.

The following is a letter that my grandfather, Earl Hunter Overbaugh (1895-1983, husband of Dorothy Pearl Overbaugh), sent to his mother, Janet Hunter Overbaugh, while he was a recruit at Camp Devens near Ayer, Massachusetts, shortly before his deployment to France.  I have edited the letter for spelling and punctuation and added annotations to give some background for the people, places, and dates he mentions.

The above image is of Earl (in uniform) with his mother possibly at their home in Waterbury, CT, in 1919.  It is one of the few images we have of him with a full head of hair!  

I believe Earl preserved most of the letters that he wrote to his mother during his time as a soldier.  I saw them tied together in a bundle in the basement of Earl and Dorothy Overbaugh’s “new” home on Old Parsonage Rd in Hampton, in the late 1970’s or early 1980’s.  Their location is currently unknown.  If found, I will endeavor to post some more of them here.

– Allen Vander Meulen III

Camp Devens

July 3, 1918[1]

Dear Mother[2]:

I received your letter today and was more than pleased to receive it.  I am praying and living in hope that I might be able to come home Sunday.  I seem to be rather unfortunate largely due to the fact that Waterbury is such a hard place to get in and out of.  We have had the opportunity to go, but even though the time was thirty some odd hours off it was at a time when I could not make connection to Waterbury.  Sunday that happened, it also happens for tomorrow that the same thing is true.  So you see that the fellows who live in Mass. And New Hampshire & Vermont have golden opportunities while I have none or few.  I will not let a good chance go by to see you folks however and I hope to be able to get a pass Sat. God willing.

Well Mother, I was out to the range today and had a very nice time.  The range is located on a high hill overlooking Still River Valley the view is superb and Miss Clara Sears[3] a rich Boston Society woman has a home on the road to the range which is magnificent.  The view is wonderfully beautiful.  Her estate covers a length of about 1-1/4 miles along the road running high up on the hillside.  For over ¾ of a mile she has a very old but splendid stone wall fence the top of which is formed of jagged rocks standing on end in cement.  The roadway is lined with a large number of wild flowers.  Was a state game and bird reserve here and you see almost all kinds of birds flying around.

One of the oddest things I have seen in all my travels is four blackberry trees each over 12” in dia. and about 20 ft. high.  I am not bluffing it is a fact, and they can easily be seen any day in the week.

Today we had sort of whirlwind around the barracks it picked up the dust and whirled it around in a column about 6 ft in dia. And 30 ft. high it came about 5:20p.m. and as we were still outside when it came near as we beat it until it wasted itself against the barracks.

On the way out to the range I was riding on the cannon and it fell away from the limber[4] twice and believe me I got some shaking up.  But it is all in the game and I had to go in to the work just the same.  Believe me we sweat some to when we are working at those guns.

I am pleased to hear that all the Hummels were home on Sunday.  It certainly must have been a pleasure to the Mother as well as the boys.  I would have liked to have seen them and been present at the Church[5] service.  I received Mable’s package.  It was a pleasant surprise to taste those chocolates.  Tell her I thank her very very much.  I am glad Helen[6] will (?????) of night duty soon.  I am surprised to hear that Bill Dallywater[7] has been injured.

Well Mother I will have to close now as the lights will soon go out.  With Love to all I remain just the same as ever.


[1] Camp Devens was soon to become “Ground Zero” in what was later known as The Great Influenza or the pandemic of 1918, which killed tens of millions of people around the world.  It first hit Devens in late August, just a few weeks after Earl wrote this letter.  By September 23rd over 10,000 of the nearly 50,000 recruits then at Devens were ill, and it had begun to spread into the surrounding communities.  Its spread was soon accelerated worldwide by the American soldiers deploying to Europe at a rate of 5,000 to 10,000 men per day.  Death rates at Devens exceeded 100 per day, many dying within a few hours of the onset of symptoms.

Also, the Battle of Balleau Wood (June 1-26, 1918) had just ended.  “…One of the bloodiest and most ferocious battles the U.S. would fight in the War…”  The victorious U.S. Forces suffered 1,811 deaths in the battle.

[2] Earl’s mother was Janet M. (Hunter) Overbaugh (1875-1962)

[3] Clara Endicott Sears (1863-1960) was the daughter of a wealthy Boston family.  She was an author and also wrote the lyrics for some popular WWI songs.  In 1910 she purchased a Farmhouse and land in Harvard MA that was once part of the Fruitlands Transcendentalist community (associated with the father of Louisa May Alcott).  In 1914 she opened the Fruitlands historic farmhouse to the public as a museum, as it still is.

[4] A “Limber” is a two wheeled cart designed to support one end of a military piece (such as a cannon) while in transit from one location to another.  It was generally connected to another cart or wagon, horse, or mule.

[5] Earl, and presumably his entire family, were members of what was then an American Baptist church on Piedmont St in Waterbury. It became a Congregational Church and eventually joined the United Church of Christ when that denomination was formed in the late 1950’s. It is the church my mother and her brother Bob Overbaugh grew up in, and is where my parents, Allen (Jr.) and Dorothy Vander Meulen, were married.  The church is now known as South Congregational Church, UCC.

[6] Helen Overbaugh Carder (1897-1970), Earl’s sister, buried in All Saints Cemetery, Waterbury CT.

[7] Possibly Joseph William Dalleywater (1897-1987), who is listed in “State of Connecticut Report of the Adjutant General (September 2018)” as a Private from the town of Waterbury in Company G of the 2nd Regiment of the Connecticut Infantry.  He died in Waterbury and is buried in the Prospect, CT Town Cemetery.

Letter Text and the image of Earl Hunter Overbaugh and his mother are Copyright (c) 2018 Dorothy Vander Meulen, all rights reserved