Memoirs of a WWI Soldier
A Rather Unusual Soldier.
My grandmother often told me stories of her younger brother Charlie who lived in Chicago. She never explained how he got to Chicago, as he was born in Montana . In recent years, I came across a publication called “The Livingston Story by the Late Copeland C. Burg (1889-1961) Nationally Known Newspaperman, Famed Chicago Artist”
One of his stories clarified for me how he ended up in Chicago, far from his home in Livingston, Montana. All I knew was that his mother had died of pneumonia in 1900 and that he lived with his father from the time he was 11 years old.
Helmut Von Moltke
From "The Livingston Story"
When WWI broke out my father, Charles Burg, was county clerk of Park county and by virtue of his office he was a member of the county draft board. He was somewhat embarrassed. He cancelled his subscriptions to German newspapers, quit his German lodge (Sons of Moltke) and stopped speaking German
My father was very anxious to see me in a military uniform of any kind. I had poor eyes (myopia) and my father pointed out it would be a pretty terrible thing if I were exempted by the county draft board for poor eyesight, while hundreds of other Park county boys were being drafted.
The army, the navy, the marine corps and every other military group turned me down because of my eyes. Every morning at breakfast my father greeted me with, “You big lummox, when are you going to get into a uniform?”
By paying my own railroad fare and expenses for three months, I was able to enroll in an army ordinance training school at the University of Oregon, in Eugene. I was finally enlisted in the army in Portland, Oregon after a fellow student in the ordinance school, who was examined before I was, memorized the eye chart and gave me a copy. I memorized it and passed the eye test with flying colors. I could even read the smallest type on the chart, or so the examiners believed.
From Portland I was sent to the Rock Island arsenal in downstate Illinois, where supplies for the ordinance corps were made.
I was a big, sloppy soldier. My uniform did not fit, there was a hole in my hat and my shoes were far too big. I just waddled along in the most unmilitary fashion. I wore glasses and had no more military bearing than a flea.
I was assigned to an ordinance training school. I learned to take apart a machine gun and put it together again even when blind-folded. I could not learn to do the manual of arms and I could not learn to drill soldiers. I was gawky and awkward. My future in the army looked dismal indeed.
History Of Rock Island
A Guardian Angel
One day I was walking in a company street at the arsenal and I bumped into William M. Nichols. I was so agitated that when I tried to salute him, I dropped an armful of books I was carrying. He helped me pick them up and then we shook hands.
I should explain how I came to know William M. Nichols. When I was a teen I was wandering around high up on the hot springs formation at Mammoth Springs in Yellowstone Park. There were danger signs around but I paid no attention. Suddenly the formation around the pool caved in. I felt strong arms pulling me to safety and when I looked up I saw a handsome young army officer. That was W.M Nichols. At that time regular army troops patrolled Yellowstone Park and young Nichols was an army officer.
After resigning from the Army in 1905, Nichols went into the real estate business in San Francisco. The San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906 put him out of that business and he went to work in the Engineering Department of the Western Pacific Railroad and, later, with the Northern Pacific, when that road was double-tracking in the western part of Montana. In 1907 he accepted the position of Secretary to H. W. Child, operating concessions in Yellowstone National Park. In 1912 he was appointed assistant to the president, and from then on for 26 years until his death.
When the First World War broke out, Nichols re-entered the service of the United States Army with the rank of Major in the Ordnance Department at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois, and was the commanding officer of the Rock Island General Supply Ordnance Depot from November of 1917 until October of 1918, and from then on he was Division Ordnance Officer of the Ninth Division of the United States Army at Camp Sheridan near Montgomery, Alabama, until December 17, 1918, when he was honorably discharged.
I was so dumb that I did not know he was in charge of the ordinance training school. Major Nichols walked to my bunk and sat down on my footlocker at the head of my bunk. He talked to me for some time asking questions about the army and about Livingston. This was most unusual for an army officer to do.
After that visit from Major Nichols my life in the army was roses and honey. My company captain sent for me and asked what the major wanted. I told him that we were friends in civilian life.
For once I was smart. I told the captain that I had informed Major Nichols that I had excellent officers, good food, and was getting along just fine. The next day the captain offered me a pass to go away for a few days. He made out two passes and my friend and I spent several wonderful days in Chicago. We went to visit relatives, borrowed civilian clothes and had a ball.
Unfortunate Incident with a Bayonet and other Misshaps
Shortly after we returned I stumbled during bayonet drill and stabbed the man in front of me in the leg. Another time, I was on night guard duty with three other soldiers and we all fell asleep! To go to sleep on guard duty during war time is a major offense. I never saw the three other guards again. There were rumors they were sent to Leavenworth KS military prison for long terms. Nothing happened to me.
Soon after, I tried to sneak into the arsenal with three quarts of whiskey I had purchased in Davenport, Iowa. I was searched and the bottles were seized. I was taken to the guardhouse. The next morning my captain came to release me saying, “Don’t worry. You have a friend here.”
Later I was drilling on the parade grounds and a young lieutenant asked me to give four commands and return the squad to its original place in the company. He might as well have asked me to hurry over to Germany and bring back the Kaiser.
I was terribly upset and all the more so because I spotted Major Nichols a short distance away. He must have blushed in deep shame.
After that I flunked examinations in military regulations and military correspondence at the ordinance school. I was also caught stealing three loaves of bread and some sardines from the company commissary and was also sent to the guardhouse for 6 hours for refusing to shovel coal.
On the last day of the school it was announced that ten of the 200 men in the school would be made sergeants of ordinance and would be sent to various universities in the United States to teach in ordinance training schools. To my surprise and the anger of every other soldier in the school my name was at the top of the list. I had first choice of the universities and chose Northwestern University in Chicago. There I has six glorious months living in a fraternity house, getting my expenses paid and teaching military correspondence and courtesy of which I knew as much as a fat Park county cow.
I could only figure that Major Nichols all along had been my guardian angel. Before I left the arsenal I wanted to go to Major Nichols to thank him and say goodbye. But no one in the army does things like this, especially in war time,. I was just an enlisted man.
After the war, I returned to Livingston and Major Nichols returned to Yellowstone Park, but I never encountered him. I am not a religious person, but when I read in the Park County News that Major Nichols had died, I could not help falling to my knees, praying that his soul would be carried to some heavenly spot where he would find eternal peace.
Life after the Army
My great-uncle Charlie Uncle Charlie went on to be a respected artist in Chicago, never married and was known to some of his nieces and nephews as “Uncle Skunk” for reasons unknown to me. Two of his paintings are displayed here.