Skip to main content

Susquehanna Life

The Great War

Nov 20, 2015 05:54AM ● By Erica Shames

After the declaration of war, the young men of America, including my father Chester Earl Baker, volunteered for military service and headed to El Paso, Tx, to train for war.

By May 1918 the arrival of the American troops in France put new heart into the exhausted French and British soldiers. After five months of war, with a bleak winter facing them, the Germans sued for peace. The Armistice was signed Nov. 11, 1918—the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. How well I remember standing beside my desk in school to observe the anniversary of the day America fought against tyranny and won.

Most of my classmates had dads who had served with my father on the Texas/Mexico border and in France. Often, these old comrades would gather on our front porch or in our living room to relive the war. They would mourn the Huntingdon boys who died in France and—though my father only attained the rank of corporal—credit him with their safe return to the most beautiful town in America, Huntingdon, Pa. They nicknamed him Zeb—I don’t know why—as well as “Mother Hen,” because he kept them out of trouble on the border and all through France until they were headed home.

I knew why he “mothered” them; he loved them. And he spent much of his post-war life “scribbling” about them and their adventures in the Great War. Indeed, he became a printer in civilian life, even, for a time, publishing a small newspaper for which he wrote nearly every word. My three older sisters and my brother never got bit by the “scribbler” bug but I did, big time. I think I became a fellow “scribbler” while working in the print shop with him at age 10. To my intense pride, he told me I was the first “printer’s devil” he ever knew who was a girl. 

Dad’s memories

Dad died in 1980 at the age of 86: my mother in 1987, at the age of 85. When we emptied the house for the new owner, I brought home three versions of dad’s memories of Company F at El Paso, training on the border, at Camp Hancock, Ga, and, finally, invading France. Since I was not too certain about the history of World War I, and afraid my dad’s memory might have failed a little, I bought several definitive World War I histories.

Editing his diary proved easy—simply typing the longest version onto my computer, then checking the shorter ones to be certain I hadn’t missed anything. I indexed it and found someone to restore the many photographs he’d taken on the border and at Camp Hancock. There was even a drawing he’d made of the bridge between El Paso and Juarez, Mexico, with an automobile crossing it. I can only conclude he’d forgotten his camera that day or couldn’t buy film for it.

Doughboy’s Diary sold first time out to a small but prestigious Pennsylvania firm, White Mane Publishing, of Shippensburg, earning excellent reviews from Publishers Weekly and Military History Illustrated. As if I needed further proof of the book’s excellence, my niece, Dixie Dunlap Enyeart, called to tell me a history professor from Juniata College was giving a lecture at the Huntingdon Historical Society on Doughboy’s Diary for his WWI segment.

Recently, my youngest daughter Rosemary—her treasured copy of Doughboy’s Diary in hand—along with her husband, Lt. Col. Michael Petrunyak, and their two children, actually attempted to walk in her beloved Pappy’s footsteps. They reached the battlefield at Fisme, France, so late one afternoon they hesitated to go in, but the elderly man on duty took one look at the book and asked Rosie where she’d gotten it. She explained that her mother had found her late father’s diary, edited it and sold it to a publisher. Although it was nearly closing time, he enthusiastically motioned them to enter. Realizing the hour, they declined, but promised to return in the morning to answer questions about Rosie’s granddad.

When they arrived the next morning, the entire population of the village, many of them weeping, awaited them. Through the English-speaking museum guide, they asked if the diary was available in French. At that time, it was not; now, thanks to another of my wonderful daughters, Margaret Wolfe, it is—on Amazon.

Selling my scribbling

I’d met and married Vince Ragosta and given birth to 11 children before I realized I could help educate all those children by, like my dad, selling my “scribbling.” I wrote 13 historical and contemporary romances for Doubleday and Baker’s Dozen, a weekly family humor column, for Twin Circle of Los Angeles.

The kids were all living useful, happy lives on their own and we had lost their dear father to cancer in 1990, before another of the passions I’d inherited from dad—loving Huntingdon with all my heart—prompted me to write about the predominantly British ancestors of the first settlers of Huntingdon County and the travails that drove them to brave the wilderness. Vince had taught me to drive right before he died, so now that neither he nor our children needed my attention, I finally had leisure time to research these forebears’ lives and times. The results are historical novels Bonny Ketty Gordon, A Thousand Kingdoms, The Monmouth Rebel and High Wind Rising.

And, also thanks to Margaret, we’ve just e-published these “Huntingdon Chronicles” as well as an anthology of the “Baker’s Dozen” columns and Dad’s Doughboy’s Diary on Amazon.

Written by Millie Baker, who graduated from Huntingdon High School in 1949, married Vincent Ragosta in 1950 and helped rear their 11 children by writing.

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Susquehanna Life's free newsletter to stay informed