Florida’s Fallen by Dr. R. B. Rosenburg
The best contemporaneous archival source that provides information on Florida’s WWI service-related deaths is State Archives of Florida. World War I Service Cards, S1204, S1249, S1233, S1234, Florida Memory, Florida Division of Library and Information Services, Tallahassee. This series contains WWI service records for both men and women who resided in Florida at the time of their enlistment or commissioning, divided into various groups according to branch of service and rank. The series also includes records of deceased personnel; i.e. “death cards.”
In July 1919, the United States Congress passed an act providing that a record of service for each soldier, sailor, and marine who served between April 6, 1917, and November 11, 1918, be created and furnished to the adjutant generals of the individual states. These cards were prepared by the Army and the Navy (including the Marine Corps and the Coast Guard) over the next seven years, being finally completed in 1926. The cards were originally provided to the states to enable them to determine eligibility for state-provided veterans’ benefits. In Florida’s case, the cards ended up in the immediate possession of the Office of the Adjutant General, Department of Military Affairs, which had the task of compiling and maintaining these records. At first, the Army sent its large collection, followed by the other services. Sometime later, the Department published a list of names, before turning over the original service cards to the State Archives of Florida. See Florida Department of Military Affairs, Florida Fatal Casualties (All Services) World War I, World War II, Special Archives Publication Number 15, Florida State Arsenal, St. Augustine, and Florida Department of Military Affairs, Florida Veterans of the First World War, All services, 1917-1919, Statistical Summary, Decorations, Special Archives Publication Number 29, Florida State Arsenal, St. Augustine.
Florida Fatal Fatalities (All Services) has 1292 total entries, arranged alphabetically and by branch of service. The Army’s list, completed on February 5, 1932, has 1141 entries for individuals (both male and female) who died between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918. Each entry includes name, rank, place of enlistment, and race (“W.” for White, “C.” for Colored). There are three lists for members of the Navy, two of which are arranged by rank and alphabetically. The first list provides name and place of enlistment or appointment for 81 men who died between April 6, 1917 and November 11, 1918. The second list has the names and place of enlistment or appointment for 25 men and 1 woman who died after November 11, 1918. A third list is devoted to 79 enlisted men only who died “during the World War,” and it provides rank, address and county in red ink, and next of kin and their addresses. These 79 names are on the other two lists for the Navy. The list of Marines who died “during the war” consists of 10 names and their respective town and county. The list of members of the Coast Guard provides 34 names only. In all, Florida Fatal Fatalities (All Services) has five more names than the Statistical Summary publication, which lists 1287. Only two of these names appear to be duplicates.
Contained within the Memorial Park Association collection at the Jacksonville Historical Society today are several references to the Florida Department of Military Affairs, including a letter from Morgan Valentine Gress to the Olmsted Brothers, March 16, 1922. Gress, who served as Chairman of the Citizens Memorial Committee (CMC) in charge of planning the park, indicated that the committee had received “the official list” from the Adjutant General’s office and that list had 1,000 names instead of the 768 previously thought. In fact, the letter-head on the CMC stationary Gress used had this mission statement: “To erect a Memorial to the 768 Soldier[sic], Sailors and Marines of the State of Florida, who lost their lives in the Service during the World War. To be located in the beautiful City Park on the water front in Riverside.” Gress also said that the list would be sent to various American Legion chapters throughout the state for verification, and that there were probably another two dozen names which would be added before the list is completed. But the list the Adjutant General’s office had provided the CMC was only a partial list of Army fatalities that excluded the other armed services and those who died after November 11.
In a follow-up letter dated February 1, 1923, written by Mrs. McGarvey Cline, Secretary for the CMC, Cline informed the Olmstead Brothers of the Committee’s decision “to eliminate” the bronze tablets that would have included the names of the men who died in the war, because “the number of names so far exceeds our first estimate.” Instead, to save money, the CMC opted for an inscription on a single tablet and to place the list of names “in a box” inside the Adrian Pillars Life sculpture. On dedication day, December 25, 1924, the list had grown to include the names 1200 “sons and daughters of Florida, who made the supreme sacrifice.” Certainly, 1200 is closer to the 1292 entries that appear in Florida Fatal Fatalities (All Services), but as my research shows there another 267 men and women from Florida (especially natives, whose service cards were sent to the adjutant generals of other states) who died as a result of their military service during the Great War or soon afterwards.
One of the names that was on the list provided to the CMC by the Florida Department of Military Affairs was Wiley Haralson Burford, a graduate of Princeton University (1916) who entered law school at the University of Florida on the eve of the war. Today, his remains are buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, and his name is among others inscribed on the University of Florida Field Memorial. Below is the “death card” filled out for Burford and later sent to Florida.
The 4 X 6 card tells us his name, race (White), residence (Ocala), place of birth (Ocala), approximate age upon entering the Army (23 years, 7 months), and date of commissioning as Second Lieutenant (August 15, 1917). It indicates that Burford was assigned to the 7th Field Artillery and that he was stationed at Fort McPherson, near Atlanta, Georgia, prior to being ordered to France. The card also provides not only his date of death, but cause and location with these specific details: “Bullet Wound Suicide at F[ie]ld Hosp[ital] 13 Rear of Church Mandres France Art[iller]y Sec[tion].” We also learn that Burford’s next of kin was his father, who lived on 405 King Street, Ocala, Florida.
In September 2017, I first began systematically going through Florida’s WWI death cards where I first encountered Lieutenant Burford’s official record of service. In entering information from his and the other cards, a genuine effort has been made to remain faithful to the original text, including cause of death. Below is a graph that indicates cause of death as provided by the armed services for the 1559 men and women now contained in my database. Included among the “other” category are 4 deaths by homicide, 2 by heroin or narcotics poisoning, 1 by execution, and another 1 by syphilis. There were as many as 7 suicides, including Burford.
Here is another service card, this one for Herman B. Yarbrough, which gives Mayfield, Kentucky as his place of birth, though Fort Myers, Florida is listed as his residence.
Yarbrough was a veteran by the time World War I began. In 1910 he was living with his older brother, Cecil Brown Yarbrough, who had moved from Kentucky to Fort Myers, where he married in 1907 and fathered two children prior to his death in 1916. The 1910 census lists Herman Yarbrough’s occupation as auto mechanic, and he was living with his brother and his young family. Later that year, in December 1910, Yarborough enlisted in the Regular Army at Jackson Barracks, Louisiana, serving in the Coastal Artillery Corps for three years prior to his honorable discharge. He evidently re-joined sometime later, was promoted to Sergeant and assigned to another CAC unit based at Jackson Barracks in New Orleans. Yarborough’s cause of death on July 15, 1918: “Self inflicted gun shot wound in head.” Beside “Remarks:” it reads: “Suicide.” According to the New Orleans Herald, Sergeant Yarbrough shot himself in his right temple using an army automatic pistol on the banks of the Mississippi River near de Armas Street. He had told police that he “was tired of life.” He lies buried in the Chalmette National Cemetery in St. Bernard Parish.
Notice one other thing about Yarbrough’s card. In the upper right-hand portion are the words “White” and “Colored,” though “Colored” is struck through, indicating that Yarbrough’s ethnicity was “White.” The United States military was entirely segregated during World War I, as it had been since 1863. Although hundreds of thousands of African Americans served during the so-called “Great War,” they did so in separate units, the majority of which were in non-combat or supportive roles. They could not join the Marines, and they could serve in only menial positions in the Navy and Coast Guard. The American Legion, a U.S. veteran’s organization formed in Paris, France, in 1919, was likewise segregated. It left the question of integration of American Legion posts up to the states or individual communities.
Here is a sample death card for Milledge Griffin, Serial Number 739,324, who resided in Rodman, Putnam County, Florida, before his induction at Jacksonville on April 26, 1918. Griffin’s card was among those sent to Florida, and his name was on the list the Department of Military Affairs gave to the CMC. Pvt. Griffin served in Company C, 305th Labor Battalion, which was an all-black unit with black officers. Following nearly ten months of service in France, Griffith died like the majority (70%) of others, of a bacteriological infection identified as pulmonary tuberculosis.
It is interesting to note that although Griffin’s name does not appear on a tablet along with the Pillars sculpture, but rather on the list placed inside its corner stone, his name is on another monument at Daffin Park in Savannah, Georgia, erected in 1919 by the local American Legion post and the Savannah Women’s Foundation, at the intersection of Waters Avenue and Victory Drive. There, below 84 names, along with 37 other “Negro Soldiers,” is Milledge Griffin, third column, second from the top.
The Chatham County Georgia World War memorial is similar to others which listed names that separated men by race. This one from Thomaston, Georgia, was dedicated by the American Legion post in 1920. The left side lists the names of 9 “Colored” soldiers and on the right side are the names of 7 “White” men. Inside the courthouse there is a bronze plaque that lists the same sixteen names as the outside granite monument. For unknown reasons, the monument omits the names of five other African Americans and three Whites who died while in uniform during the Great War.