An M. A. C. Legacy, Part 1: Emory Crocker

22 01 2018

America entered into World War I on April 6, 1917 and put out the call for young men to join in the fight. Michigan Agricultural College, later to be known as Michigan State University, answered this call with its own students. Of those many, three in particular stand out: the Crocker siblings. Thanks to a collection housed in the MSU Archives building and the correspondence between these three, Mary, Emory, and Martin, we are given a unique look into the life of M.A.C. students: those who stayed and those who went “over there.”

Emory Crocker

Yearbook Photo of Emory Crocker from The Wolverine, 1917

Emory Crocker, Class of 1917, was a forestry student. Before he began his war service with the National Guard, his career at M. A. C., according to his letters to Mary, was predictable. He wrote of playing football, going on hikes with friends, and asking if Mary could “get me a girl for the Forester’s Party?…Tell her I am not the best dancer in the world but will try and not make life too miserable.” During his participation in the forestry program, he spent one summer studying “the mammoth maple, gray and rock elm, birch and black ash trees” with other young men who at the time were simply students taking classes and learning their future profession. Among this group were others who would join Emory in the war: Sueldon B. Lee, H. N. Putnam, J. E. Foess, Roger W. Billings, Harold A. Clementsen, B. M. McClure, and Cosmer Magnus Leveaux, all with the Class of 1917. Leveaux and Emory were soldiers with Battery A, 119th Field Division, and Leveaux would lose his life on August 10, 1918, fighting “north of Chateau Thiery [sic].”[3]

The letters from Emory to his family start on October 8, 1917 when he was stationed in Waco, Texas. He mostly tells his family of camp goings-on, the people he met, and contagion scares and quarantines. On December 29, 1917, he wrote to tell his parents what Christmas in the military looked like:

“I got more this year for Xmas than I ever got before… I have got all kinds of knitted socks, toilet soap, tooth paste [sic] [,] wristletts [sic], trench caps, candy, tobacco, talcum pow[d]er, handkerchiefs and other things too numerous to mention. The box I got from the Lansing Red Cross was the best. There was even a gem safety razer [sic] in it. I will need every thing [sic] when we get in France I guess.”

Emory’s Christmas in the armed forces included packages from different Red Cross organizations and women who made knitted things to contribute to the war effort outside of his hometown, but he also received gifts from his family, such as “two packages…and a box of cake.” While this time was enjoyable, it was temporary, and a later line in his letter hints to the grueling hours of work: “I simply haven’t had time for nearly two weeks to do much writting [sic]. A man has mighty little time to himself in the army.”

Emory also talks mentions different attitudes that he and other soldiers had during their training: “I hear that every body [sic] that can is flocking to the Quarter Master [sic] Corps and the Ordinance [sic] Corps up North. I don’t blame them.  It is only natural that the majority would try to get in the safest place they could.” Besides the normal fears of the battlefield, Emory also had to face the technological advances that this war presented. The military began using vehicles, and this was daunting and unfamiliar: “Where I am out of luck in this war is that I know nothing at all about motors…. They have taken our horses and are going to replace them by motor trucks and motorcycles and automobiles. I am out of date in this war.” And of course, soldiers understood the military’s censorship rules.  “Don’t publish or talk to any one [sic] about what I write,”

Censorship approval Emory Crocker

Censor Signature of Approval, From Mary Crocker Collection, Box FD, Folder 4

Emory wrote to his mother. “There are strict orders out forbidding soldiers writting [sic] to news papers [sic] without just having the letters censored…. If any uncensored letters are published some one [sic] is going to get it. Of course that will be the soldier.”  While he understood what was at stake, he needed to make the rest of his family aware for his sake. Overall, Emory’s letters show how much war would change and shake up the life of a soldier as well as his family.

In addition to having to train and carry the responsibilities of a soldier at war, he also had to fight a battle with a less visible opponent: disease. Even though influenza is the best recognized illness during this era, other diseases plagued soldiers. In his first letter from Waco, dated October 8, 1917, Emory revealed that his camp was “quarantined with diphtheria” and that “there are a couple of cases now.” A few days later, he writes again, including a sarcastic comment to the perceived overreaction: “Well, we are quarantined to our Battery street. They say we have diphtheria. That is a couple of the men have sore throats so it must be diphtheria you see.” It only took a couple of days for his irritation to set in. He would be released only to be hospitalized again two months later with pneumonia. However, he was more worried about being left behind than succumbing to illness: “It was only a little touch….I only hope the battery doesn’t leave before I get out.” He was going to make sure that when his unit left, he would be with them. About a month later, his unit was scheduled to leave for Camp Merritt, New Jersey. Shortly before they left, he was still in the hospital, but “I argued with them so much that they let me out.”

It wasn’t all bad, however. Emory did also talk about running into people from M. A. C. fairly regularly, and how excited both parties were to see each other:

“I got a surprise the other night. Some one [sic] called me and I stepped outside of the tent and met Bill Anderson,… who graduated with ‘17.  He was shipped down with a bunch from Custer. He certainly was a tickeled [sic] fellow to see some one [sic] he knew….He didn’t know whether he would see anything of us down here and he was sore as the dickens because he didn’t say he wanted to be in the artillery when he first came. I never saw a fellow who was so tickled to see some one [sic] he knew as Bill was…. I took him over to Lt. Donelley and Donelley who knew Bill well in school is going to get him transfered [sic]. Bill Told me all the M.A.C. news from Custer. Harry Stewart is also down here in the 126th. He was another tickled kid to see someone he knew.”

Emory’s letters from France provide possibly the richest and most revealing chronicles of the entire collection of his writings. He started to share more with his family about what he did as a soldier. His new experiences were more richly detailed, starting with his training: “We get a lot of drill with gas masks. They say there isn’t any excuse of a man being gassed if he does as told.” Gas warfare was new in the Great War, and soldiers prepared for encountering clouds of different types of gases.

Gas Mask Museum

Gas mask used by soldiers during WWI with carrying bag, from the Michigan State University Museum Cultural Collections)

What Emory would be most recognized for was his work as a gunner: “I never worked on a gun squad until we came here except now and then an occassional [sic] drill. I was never very close to one when they were firing. The first few times out the firing gave me an awful headache but it doesn’t effect [sic] me at all now.” His work as a gunner became a point of pride as his Battery was the first from Lansing to fire on the Germans. In a newspaper article saved by Mary in her scrapbook, Emory is listed as the gunner, and the shells from the first two shots were “sent back home by Major Amos Ashley” and were “on exhibit in the window of Hurd’s Men’s Shop on south Washington avenue near Washtenaw street.”

Emory on cannon enhanced

Emory Crocker (left) on a gun with another soldier (unknown), from the Mary Crocker Collection, Scrapbook

At this point, Emory’s written trepidation of fighting was gone and replaced with bravado. Emory tells Mary that “I am a gunner and believe me I am going to have the sights of that gun right where they ought to be. I am going to make it a personal grudge.” He also wrote his parents about getting ready to go to the front, saying, “I hope our next shots will be fired towards the Dutchmen.” He would get his wish on June 12, 1918:

“We came to the front several days ago and have seen some hot stuff on two or three occassions [sic]. Yesterday morning the Hun gave it to us for about three hours in good style and then kept up a harassing fire throughout the day. No one in the battery was hurt. The Hun isn’t the only one who has been doing the firing. Up to yesterday morning we have bothered him continually; firing about three times as many shells as he did. Yesterday morning our infantry broke up a nice little party the Hun was figuring on and he got sore and gave it to us….I enjoy the honor of being with one of the two guns that were the first of our regiment to fire at the German. They tell us those first rounds done business too.”

Letter Emory Crocker

Letter From Emory Crocker to Mary, From Mary Crocker Collection, Box FD, Folder 4

Emory’s retelling of his first battle at the front reads as an exciting tale and, for him in that first battle, it was. There were no casualties, and he got to shoot at the enemy just like what he “thought we would be doing…when I enlisted.” However, it is important to pause and consider what these letters would have meant to those at home who had never experienced the kind of technology this war had introduced. If Emory was experiencing new and overwhelming technologies first hand, these revelations read by friends and family through letters must have seemed particularly alien—and frightening—in  nature.

Emory’s letters to his family offers a unique and personal look at what American, and specifically M. A. C., soldiers experienced in France and how they communicated that to their families back home. With varying levels of fear and boldness intermingled with touching, personal moments, Emory describes his experiences in Waco, New Jersey, and France in a way that is deeply appreciated by the people wishing to understand more about this crucial moment in history.

Bibliography:

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 8 January 1916, Box FD, Folder 1, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Mary Crocker Scrapbook, n. d., Scrapbook #244, Boutell Mary Crocker, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

“Cosmer Leveaux With ‘18,” From The M.A.C. Record, 30 September 1918,  M.A.C. Record digital collection, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 29 December 1917, Box FD, Folder 2, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 13 January 1918, Box FD, Folder 2, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 8 October 1917, Box FD, Folder 2, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 13 October 1917, Box FD, Folder 2, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 28 January 1918, Box FD, Folder 2, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 14 February 1918, Box FD, Folder 3, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 19 May 1918, Box FD, Folder 4, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 23 May 1918, Box FD, Folder 4, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 20 June 1918, Box FD, Folder 4, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Emory Crocker to Mary Crocker, 27 May 1918, Box FD, Folder 4, Boutell  Mary Crocker Papers, collection UA 10.3.104, Michigan State University Archives and Historical Collections, East Lansing, Michigan.

Written by Catharine Neely, intern for MSU Archives & MSU Museum

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