In the chaos and destruction of combat, many Oregonians simply were never seen again. The following is a story of one Oregon soldier missing in action (MIA).
An Oregon Guardsman
Silverton's Delbert Reeves never graduated from high school. He finished the eighth grade and went to work, which was not uncommon in the years before World War I. His job at a local sawmill certainly didn't require a high school diploma. But Reeves looked beyond his sawmill job and decided to enlist in the Oregon National Guard. On March 29, 1917, just days before America declared war, he went to nearby Woodburn and signed up for the infantry. Reeves would be a foot soldier. He signed his name under the terms of his enlistment:
- He would be obligated to three years of service and three years in the reserve.
He was of legal age and able-bodied.
He was "of good habits and character in all respects."
He was a U.S. citizen of the state of Oregon or had declared his intention to be a citizen.
He was not married and had no dependents to support in case he were "called or drafted into the service of the United States."
Called to War
The U.S. Army called up much of the National Guard in the months after the declaration of war. In fact, Reeves was mustered into federal service two days before on April 4 and soon found himself in General Pershing's American Expeditionary Force. In July 1917, before he left for France, he married Inez Williams in Grants Pass. In the following months, he worked hard and was promoted to corporal in November.
By the next summer, Reeves was seeing plenty of action at the front "somewhere in France." Apparently, he wanted a change from his previous assignment behind the front lines: "I got tired of the old bunch and drilling, so [I] asked to go to the front...." For six weeks his superiors refused to let Reeves go until, finally, one officer interceded on his behalf: "...then old Capt. Todd told us if we wanted to go very bad he would turn us loose, so four of us left. The old man couldn't hold in when we left. A better man never lived than him. He sure was a dad to us all."
In the Thick of It
Once he made his way to the front, Reeves lost no time in getting into the thick of the battle. At one point, he was separated from his "bunch after we had gone over the top." He came upon twelve Germans and took them all prisoner, while later recalling "I sure had a devil of a time with them as they were scared to death and run around like a bunch of sheep."
Reeves also killed the enemy in his action at the front. In a letter home, Reeves displayed his battlefield bravado about killing the enemy: "Will you tell Dad Reeves and Dad Williams [father-in-law] that I got us a Dutchman [German] apiece as they wanted me to...."
But along with the brave words, Reeves revealed the fear many men felt in his situation: "The battle field is sure some sight. A fellow feels funny the first time he goes over the top. It didn't scare me after I got the signal to go over, but was kind of nervous the few minutes we were waiting before we got the signal to go. When a person gets the word to go over all the nervousness seems to leave and you want to get there so you can tie into a Dutchman." He also held a common loyalty that was forged in battle: "Our officers are all old timers at it and the boys would go 'til h--l froze over and then thirty minutes on the ice with them." Reeves gave his family further observations in a July 1918 letter:
Soon after writing the letter, Reeves was back at the front where he once again was separated from his squad in battle. This time he would not return. The Army officially listed him as missing in action and eventually he was presumed dead. However, he was later determined to be killed in action and was buried in Plot B, Row 20, Grave 5 in the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery at Fere-en-Tardenois, France.
In November 1918 Reeves was honored with the French Croix de Guerre with silver star. The General Headquarters of the French Armies of the East issued the following citation:
According to one estimate, over 14,000 Americans were listed as missing in action. While high, the figure pales in comparison with the nearly two million considered missing for the war as a whole. Statistics show that Austria-Hungary alone tallied over 850,000 missing during World War I.
(Oregon State Defense Council Records, Personal Military Service Records, World War I, Reeves: Box 4, Marion County, School District No. 4; Oregon Military Department Records, Enlistment and Service Records; Statistics: firstworldwar.com)