Lebanon soldier’s sacrifice recalled

A group of American and French soldiers gather in the Argonne Forest as they worked to clear the area of German forces. The formerly dense forest has been denuded of trees by fierce shelling between the opposing armies (Submitted photo/Harry S. Truman Library by way of the National Archives)

CAMDEN — Almost 10,000 members of the United States armed services in World War I came from Delaware. Of those, 43 had died by the time the guns fell silent at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918.

For the family of Pvt. Clarence Vinson, the news of the armistice was tinged with uncertainty. James and Maggie Vinson of Lebanon knew their 28-year-old son was in the midst of some of the heaviest fighting of the conflict. What they did not know was that their only child had not lived to see the end of the war, dying only eight days before the end of the fighting.

In recognition of Pvt. Vinson’s service and sacrifice, the Camden Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3238, was dedicated in his honor in March 1935.

Larry Josefowski, incoming commander of the Clarence Vinson/John Chason VFW post, reflected on Pvt. Vinson’s life and legacy.

“Vinson’s story, of one giving his life for his country, is a story that has been 1.6 million times in our country’s history,” he said.

“Our post is co-named for him as an honor for his sacrifice, but also as a reminder that we must not forget that sacrifice and the sacrifices made by all who answered our nation’s call.”

An ordinary family

Clarence Vinson was a “no-name” baby when he was born at home Jan. 23, 1890, in the Kent County town of Lebanon. His birth certificate, filed two weeks after the fact, showed his parents had yet to settle on a first name. It wasn’t until March 1934 – 15 years after his son’s death – that Mr. Vinson officially certified his son’s name with the Delaware Board of Health.

Clarence Vinson had family roots in Kent County. His grandparents, James and Sarah Sylvester Vinson, had married in February 1857. The couple was living in Lebanon by 1880, where they were raising four children, including James, who was recorded on that year’s census as working on a farm.

There are no records documenting James’ movements, but by 1888 he had married 25-year-old Irish-born Maggie Mulrainey. Clarence was born less than two years later.

Clarence was attending school by 1900, while his father continued as a farm laborer; by 1910, the 20-year-old Clarence had joined his father working on a fishing boat.

World events, however, were about to intrude on the Vinson family’s relatively unremarkable existence.

‘You are hereby ordered … ’

Ostensibly neutral after what then was termed The Great War broke out in June 1914, President Woodrow Wilson realized America eventually would be drawn into the conflict. He approved the Selective Service Act in May 1917, requiring all men between 18 and 30 years of age to sign up with the draft.

At the age of 27, Clarence Vinson dutifully registered on June 2, 1917. Records show he was working as a stoker, or fireman, on a boat belonging to Wilmington’s Charles Warner Company. The firm maintained a fleet of tugs and barges used to deliver gravel, cement and similar substances along the shores of the Delaware River.

This portrait of Clarence Vinson was donated in 1934 by his father to the newly formed Camden Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3238. (Submitted photo/Jeff Brown)

Although he was working and probably living in Wilmington, Mr. Vinson was registered through the draft board in Dover. His registration showed he was unmarried and of medium height and build, with blue eyes and brown hair.

It didn’t take long for his number to be called. He was told to appear for medical exams on March 11, 1918, in Dover; he was ordered to report for induction just 20 days later. April 1 found him on a train headed for Camp Dix, New Jersey, where he was assigned to the 59th Pioneer Infantry.

Formally organized as a regiment Feb. 27, 1918, many of the men of the 59th had come from the Delaware National Guard. Their primary duty had been patrolling at various points in the First State considered susceptible to attack by German sympathizers.

Now-Pvt. Vinson’s induction on April 1 made him one of 293 Delaware recruits to be assigned to the regiment, which was augmented by a group of Delawareans from the Army’s 78th Division. As time went on, recruits from New York and New Jersey were assigned to beef up the regiment to wartime strength.

Pvt. Vinson’s training as an infantryman at Camp Dix was short, perhaps necessitated by the need for manpower in the European theater. He and other members of the 59th were transferred to Co. I, 312th Infantry Regiment, 150th Infantry Brigade, 78th Division. On May 20, the soldiers set sail from Boston aboard the British steamship SS Winifredian.

Because of a 1973 fire that destroyed many records from World War I, almost nothing is known of Pvt. Vinson’s service with the 78th. The division was in the vanguard of much of the fighting as American troops and their French allies pushed toward the German border in the latter phase of the war. Each regiment suffered tremendous casualties from bullets, shrapnel and poison gas.

The last patrol

The only verified record on Pvt. Vinson during this time shows he accidentally sprained his right foot during a Sept. 15 march, an injury severe enough to send him to a field hospital for more than a month.

This injury apparently led to a later belief Pvt. Vinson had been wounded in combat, resulting in a 1926 review of his records by the Army’s Adjutant General office. It is possible the investigation was requested by his parents, although the existing record does not give a reason.

Regardless, the injury was found not to be suspicious, and Pvt. Vinson was returned to the 312th on Oct. 17.

The Delaware World War Service Medal was awarded to First State soldiers who served in World War I. The gold star indicates a posthumous award. This particular medal was awarded to the family of Pvt. Woodman R. Beeson, who, like Pvt. Clarence Vinson, served in the 312th Infantry Regiment. Pvt. Beeson, who was from Wilmington, was killed in the Argonne Forest two days after Pvt. Vinson’s death (Submitted photo/usmilitariaforum.com)

It was around this time the 312th was sent to the village of Granpré with orders to take a small farm recaptured by the Germans two days earlier. Once they got within 300 yards of their objective, however, enemy machine guns opened up and killed all of the regiment’s officers and many of the men. The survivors played dead until nightfall then retreated to Granpré.

Surviving records show Pvt. Vinson may have been one of those injured soldiers. A statement from a fellow soldier, Cpl. Emil L. Weber of Newark, N.J., stated Pvt. Vinson had been wounded in the stomach Oct. 23 by machine gun fire while on patrol at Granpré.

According to reports in the Wilmington Evening Journal, the detail that took Pvt. Vinson from the field to the nearby first aid station was selected by Dover resident John Argo. While being carried to the rear, Pvt. Vinson reportedly asked the stretcher-bearers to put him down and seek shelter as enemy shells flew overhead.

Despite the confusion over the date of his injuries (some reports indicate he was wounded Nov. 1), Pvt. Vinson succumbed to his wounds Nov. 3 and was buried in a temporary grave near the field hospital.

The Vinsons were notified of their son’s death via a War Department cable, but there was no mention of the loss in the local media. That came in February 1919, from a letter from a soldier named Smith written to his brother, who said he’d witnessed Pvt. Vinson receive the fatal wounds.

Memorializing a local soldier

Delawareans set out to honor Pvt. Vinson’s memory in November 1920, when it was reported a bridge over a recently completed bridge carrying what is now South State Street over the Tidbury Creek would be named in his honor. The dedication was set for Memorial Day, Monday, May 30, 1921.

Several hundred people attended the dedication ceremony, which included a short address by Delaware Gov. William D. Denney. According to the Wilmington News Journal, the governor commended Pvt. Vinson’s bravery in battle and urged those present to emulate his life of sacrifice. Pvt. Vinson’s memorial plaque was unveiled with a gun salute, the playing of Taps, and a rendition of the national anthem.

While it’s not known if Mr. and Mrs. Vinson attended this ceremony, what is known is the couple, especially Mrs. Vinson, waged a letter-writing campaign to see their son’s body returned to Delaware.

The bridge still carries Pvt. Vinson’s memorial plaque.

Coming home to Delaware

With the end of the war, the Army set out on a massive campaign to reclaim the remains of soldiers from battlefield graveyards. Pvt. Vinson’s body was disinterred on April 4, 1919, and reburied the same day on land dedicated as the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery.

Pvt. Vinson had been buried in his uniform, with the body wrapped in burlap and placed in a wooden box. Although badly decomposed, the detail handing the exhumation verified the remains through one of the identity tags buried with the body.

However, Mr. and Mrs. Vinson did not want to leave their only child buried on foreign soil.

In March 1919, Mr. Vinson wrote to Maj. Gen. Peter C. Harris, the adjutant general of the Army, saying, “We would like to know if the War Department is going to bring the bodies of our soldiers who were killed in France home.”

If that were the case, Mr. Vinson requested his son’s body be returned.

“Will you be so kind as to write us as to this,” he asked.

In August 1919, Mrs. Vinson also wrote to Harris, requesting her son’s body be returned to the United States.

“I do so want the remains of my son here,” she wrote. “I can hardly wait.”

She sent another letter in January 1920, writing to Col. Charles C. Pierce, chief of the Army’s grave registration service.

“Am glad my boy’s resting place is known, but I want his remains here,” she wrote, underlining the last five words.

However, after apparently not hearing from Col. Pierce’s office, the Vinsons asked Richard Kenney, commander of the American Legion Walter L. Fox Post No. 2, to pen another letter. He did so in May 1921, a message that was followed in June by another request from Mr. Vinson.

A representative from the Graves Registration Service finally wrote back, confirming the couple’s wishes for their son to be returned to America.

Pvt. Vinson’s body was disinterred from the Meuse-Argonne Cemetery on July 25, 1921, with cemetery workers again verifying the remains through his identity tag. The remains were casketed and began the two-month trip back to Delaware.

The Evening Journal reported on Sept. 15, 1921, that Mr. Vinson had been notified by telegram his son’s remains had arrived in Hoboken, N.J., and soon would be shipped to Dover. The body arrived by train late in the evening of Monday, Sept. 19, and was taken to the Vinson home in Lebanon.

The newspaper noted members of the Delaware National Guard, who were drilling on The Green, presented honors as the body passed by.

Pvt. Vinson’s funeral services were held Monday, Sept. 26, in his parents’ home, with members of the Grand Army of the Republic and American Legion Walter L. Fox Post taking part. Interment was at the Odd Fellows Cemetery, Camden, with music provided by the Dover Band and a gun salute by the Dover Company of the National Guard. Taps was played by a former member of the 59th Pioneer Infantry.

VFW Post No. 3238

Fourteen years later, in March 1935, Camden-area veterans formed the Clarence Vinson VFW Post No. 3238, holding their inaugural meeting at Caesar Rodney High School. Mr. Vinson was named an honorary member of the post and presented the new group with a portrait of his son, which still hangs in the VFW hall.

Mr. Vinson also took part in an information-gathering effort by the Delaware Public Archives to document the histories of the state’s military personnel. After completing all of the essential information on the registration form, Mr. Vinson wrote of his son, “He was our only child and died for the good of the whole world.”

The Vinsons remained in Lebanon, where they owned a small home next to what now is the Lebanon Wesleyan Church.

Former town resident John G. Cooper remembered the Vinsons during a June 2013 interview.

Born in 1923, five years after Clarence Vinson died in France, Mr. Cooper remembered Mr. and Mrs. Vinson as well-known but low-key members of the community.

“They didn’t talk about their son very much,” he said.

“They were the first in our town to get a radio,” Mr. Cooper recalled. “I remember going to their house and listening to the radio. It was mostly country music.”

“I don’t remember much else,” he said. “I know he was a fisherman. They were pretty quiet people and kept to themselves pretty much.”

In May 1920, Clarence Vinson was one of 570 Kent County residents awarded the Delaware World War Service Medal. The medal, authorized by the state legislature, would have included a silver star mounted on the ribbon to signify his status as having been killed in action.

Mrs. Vinson became the first honorary president of the Post Auxiliary when it was formed in May 1935. She held that post until her death at age 73 on Aug. 31, 1936.

Mr. Vinson lived in retirement in Lebanon until his passing at the age of 93 on Aug. 20, 1955. Both parents now lie with their son under a granite obelisk at the Camden Odd Fellows Cemetery.

Clarence Vinson’s epitaph, barely legible now after almost 100 years, reflects the thoughts of his parents:

“He left his home in perfect health.

He looked so young and brave.

We little thought how soon he’d be

Laid in a soldier’s grave.”

Jeff Brown is a member of the Clarence Vinson/John Chason Camden Veterans of Foreign Wars Post No. 3238