Archive for November, 2018

WWI Aviation Mechanics: Ralph Whatley

November 11, 2018
Ralph Whatley 1st MM Brigade

Ralph Whatley, seated on the ground, lower right, with French and American members of the 1st Motor Mechanics Brigade of the US Army in France, 1918.

When the contents of my great-grandparents’ house in Ulah were finally distributed among the family, my father got a box of letters that my grandfather had mailed home to his parents and siblings from 1917 to 1919.  There are more than a hundred letters, all numbered so that the recipients could figure out if any were missing, and many are fragile, written on acidic YMCA notepaper which ages badly.

My grandfather, then about 26 years old, was not an introspective or particularly observant writer. He was obviously no worry to his Captain, whose job it was to censor his men’s letters, as few if any of Ralph’s notes and cards were redacted. Now that I have my own son in the army, I recognize the “I’m doing fine, the Sergeant says I should write home” style of correspondence.  Occasionally I could pick out some details of what he was experiencing in France, and these are set out in the article  published on the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources blog on World War I.

What began to interest me as much as the family connection was his membership in a forgotten pioneer groups- the very first American aviation mechanics. Ralph Whatley was one of several dozen North Carolina boys who were members of the 1st Motor Mechanics Brigade of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Under an agreement made between and US and France, his company spent the entire war embedded with French pilots and aviation battle groups, so that French mechanics could build the planes American pilots needed to get into the air.

Raph Whatley uniform jp

Ralph Whatley in uniform, 1918

I barely remember my grandfather even mentioning his World War service. My father and uncle heard a few stories, but by the time they repeated them to me, they were rather garbled. For example, my uncle was sure that my grandfather had gotten the flu in France, and that my great-grandfather had gotten a pass from his friend Josephus Daniels to visit my grandfather in his hospital in France.  In fact, my grandfather had scarlet fever, but at Camp Hancock in December 1917. My great-grandfather did visit him in the hospital, much more conveniently located near his cousins in Augusta, Georgia.

As most of the US Army records were destroyed in the disastrous fire at the St. Louis National Archives in 1972, piecing together not only my grandfather’s service record but the entire unit history is rather difficult. Fortunatley, ancestry.com has digitized the passenger lists of all of the ships which took soldiers overseas.  When I found the list of the U.S.S. President Lincoln, it disclosed the names and hometowns of the entire Motor Mechanics Brigade. I’ve tried to track down some of his fellow soldiers, but so far it appears that my grandfather’s letters, and his many photographs, are some of the few records of this unit that have survived.  I’d love to hear from anyone who has letters, diaries or photographs that can help flesh out this fascinating story.

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