By Nora Sawyer, Sausalito Historical Society
November 27th, 1917 was a Tuesday. Somewhere in in France, Alfred Panella woke up to snow. “It sure was a pretty sight,” he wrote in a letter to his parents.
That Thursday was Thanksgiving. Corporal Panella shared a feast with his fellow soldiers, featuring “turkey with dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, blackberry jam, apple pie, dried figs, assorted nuts and apples.” He then spent the afternoon in a nearby town with six other solders. There, undaunted by their earlier feast, they enjoyed another meal:
“We found a cafe where we were served eggs and French fried potatoes. It was a treat and believe me we sure enjoyed ourselves. . . After we ate our first two eggs we decided on more.”
Eight months later, on July 18th, Corporal Panella was one of the first wave of soldiers in the Battle of Soissons. Later, his friend Corporal Strzeszewski saw him leading a platoon of 58 men in no man’s land under heavy fire. At 11 AM Strzeszewski saw his friend again. In a letter to Corporal Panella’s mother, he wrote:
“He was sent back to stop tank corps who was firing on us by mistake, thinking we were square heads (I mean Germans), and same time he had few German prisoners. He waived [sic] his hand to me and kept going. There was no time to talk. . . That is the last time I saw my friend who fought with me side by side and shoulder to shoulder going through the HELL IN FRANCE.”
On November 1st, 1919, the Sausalito News reported that Corporal Panella, who had been reported wounded in action July 18, 1918, was presumed dead.
John Norwood McNeil was “a little over seventeen” when, “fired with patriotism,” he joined the U.S. expeditionary forces. The Sausalito News reports that when his mother asked why he didn’t consult with her beforehand, he said that “he knew she would object on account of his age” and “wanted to do his bit.”
Private McNeil became ill on the train to Washington D.C., and was taken to Camp Travis, in Texas. His mother “hurried to his bedside.” He died three days after her arrival, “the first one from Sausalito since war was declared against Germany.”
G. Francis Madden, brother to J. Herbert Madden and a master boat builder, entered the war more reluctantly. His draft card shows that he requested an exemption from service, as he was “engaged in building boats for the coast guard.”
Nevertheless, when called to fight, he did so bravely. His captain writes he “did not hesitate in the face of danger,” despite having survived battles that were “enough to test the soul of any man.”
On November 29th, 1918, Private Madden’s family received a telegram stating he’d been killed in France on October 14th. They’d received a letter from him a few days before dated October 17th, and so hoped there’d been a mistake. In a letter to his mother dated November 6th, Henry “Sonny” Johnson spoke of a friend being killed, but the name was censored. The army later confirmed that Madden had been killed instantly when struck by a high explosive shell in battle on November 1st.
In another letter, Sonny Johnson wrote that he “was near when it happened and I know where he is [buried].” He continued,
“This war is no picnic; fellows that never seen it don’t know how lucky they are. . . I thought many a time that I’d never come home. Bullets flying so thick they sound like hail on a tin roof, they seemed to be bumping into one another.”
Major Shadworth Beasley was a surgeon, and “well known in Sausalito,” where his parents had lived for thirty years. Stationed in France, Major Beasley rejoined his regiment in Verdun on October 12, 1918 after an illness. His friend, Sergeant Joseph LeProhon recalled, “he was rather tired… so sat down to have a little rest in a little dug-out next to mine.” Soon after, they were shelled. Major Beasley ran out to retrieve a fallen soldier, and “brought him back to the place where our holes were.”
Immediately, LeProhon writes, they heard a noise. “Boom, then a SHSHSHSHSHSH, then a bang, well, the first thing I knew, we were all on the ground, and seemed to be all afire.” Major Beasley was hurt. “A piece of the shell about the size of your two fists” had broken his hip,and gone into his intestines. “I did the very best I could,” LeProhon writes, and “talked to him, but he was too weak to answer, and died in about ten minutes.”
One hundred years ago, Sausalito lost these and other sons. They were neither the first nor the last soldiers mourned by our city, but as Memorial Day passes, it’s fitting to remember their sacrifice.
“At Close Grips,” Library of Congress photo from WWI