McClellan: On the 11th hour of the 11th day...

2012-11-11T00:15:00Z 2012-11-12T12:21:20Z McClellan: On the 11th hour of the 11th day...By Bill McClellan bmcclellan@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8143 stltoday.com

Virgil Scott Mahin was born in 1867 near the town of La Monte, Mo., in Pettis County. He came from a long line of farmers. He married Laura Emmazetta Dorrance in 1894. They had two sons, Roy and Guy. Roy was born in 1895, Guy in 1897.

Roy was 21 when the United States entered World War I. He joined the Army and volunteered for the aviation section. He was the first of 53 young men from Pettis County to die in the Great War.

Guy became a cattle farmer. His farm was next to his father’s place. Guy and his wife, Goldie, had four children — Clarence, Arthur, Laura and Charlotte.

Charlotte remembers a framed photograph of her Uncle Roy hanging in the dining room of her grandfather’s house. He was in his uniform. She knew he died in the war, but that was all she knew. No one told her anything about him.

Her grandfather died in 1993. The photo of Uncle Roy was passed down to Charlotte’s brother, Arthur.

By then, Charlotte was living in St. Louis. She and her husband, both teachers, had moved here in 1966. They had two daughters. Her husband, Henry Pullen, eventually became the associate dean of science and technology at St. Louis Community College at Meramec. He died in 2001.

About a year ago, Charlotte got a copy of Uncle Roy’s photograph from Arthur. She hung it in the hallway, a photo of a serious-looking young man about whom Charlotte knew almost nothing.

Her oldest brother, Clarence, had died in 2005. He was a farmer. Last spring, his daughter was going through his things and found a box full of letters from Roy to his family — from his first day in the Army almost to the day of his death.

Apparently, Roy’s father had saved them and then passed them on to Guy, who had passed them on to his oldest son.

The letters begin on Aug. 12, 1917, when Roy arrived in Kansas City, bound for Jefferson Barracks.

In September, he was in Texas. He ran into an acquaintance. In a letter to Guy, he wrote: “Do you remember that family of Workmans where Flo Reed boarded at when she taught school at Leeton, Mo.? One of the boys is here now. He is the one that won $500 from Earl Powel in a crap game. That is the time that Earl forged the checks to pay him. Workman is sending a lot of money home now from gambling. He makes about $10 every night.”

Roy also asked, “Have you saw Ruth lately? I haven’t heard from her in a long time.”

That must have changed. Along with the letters from Roy is a letter to Roy. It is from the La Monte Bank. It was written on Nov. 16. “Today we delivered to Miss Ruth Connor your letter enclosed for her, and also the ring as you directed. Enclosed you will find receipt for the ring, which Miss Connor seemed much pleased to receive.”

An engagement ring? A friendship ring? The answer is unknowable.

The letters are cheerful. Much small talk, very little about the military. In October, still in Texas, he wrote that he no longer wanted to be a pilot. “There has been 10 machines ruined and 16 men killed here since I have been here in just 5 weeks.”

Then he was in New York, marveling at the city.

On Dec. 16, he wrote that his unit had arrived in France. He was still on the ship at the dock. He said a storm had raged day and night. He had been quite sick, but he struck a cheerful note. “I am not going to cross the ocean more than one more time and not on a ship if I can find any other way,” he wrote. “Tell everybody Hello for me. I am too dizzy to write any more.”

The next letter was to his father, from one of Roy’s friends. It was written on Jan. 4 from “Somewhere in France.” It was a four-page letter.

“About the 4th day out of New York we ran into quite a storm and we were all more or less seasick, and it was from then on that Roy began to fail and he never did get real strong again as another storm followed the first in such quick succession that he did not have time to get his strength back at all.”

Roy was taken to a hospital when the ship landed, and his unit went inland, expecting Roy to join them when he recovered.

He died in the hospital two days after Christmas.

“I can assure you that all the boys felt very sadly when we were told of his death and you cannot imagine the task it has been for me to write this letter.”

Roy was buried in France. The war ended, of course, the following year, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.

Roy’s body was returned to this country and buried in Knob Noster, Mo.

He is survived by his letters.

Bill McClellan is a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Read his columns here.

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Bill McClellan

Bill McClellan worked as a reporter in Phoenix before coming to the Post-Dispatch in 1980. He was night-police reporter before becoming a columnist in 1983. He also appears on Channel 9's Donnybrook.

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