Independence Day spent sailing to France
Editor’s Note: The 314th Regiment of the 79th Division AEF, will be highlighted on Sunday, July 15, 2 p.m. at the Thomas T. Taber Museum of the Lycoming County Historical Society at 858 W. Fourth Street, Williamsport, PA.
The presenter will be Nancy Schaff, granddaughter of a 314th soldier and president of the “Descendants & Friends of the 314th.” Several area men served in the regiment, their experiences similar to other units overseas.
UNITYVILLE – When Independence Day dawned in 1918, Elmer “Franklin” Gardner was aboard the ship Leviathan on his way to France. A Private with the 314th Machine Gun Company, they left Hoboken, New Jersey, and on July 4 were at the midway point in their eight day voyage.
In keeping America’s freedom, Gardner would participate in ‘The Great War.’ He’d follow in the footsteps of his ancestor, Johan ‘Peter’ Sones, a patriot from Berks County, whose service in the Revolutionary War initiated Independence Day.
The recruit, born September 10, 1893 near Unityville, was the eldest son in a family parented by George M. & Margaret (Boudman) Gardner.
As they sailed, home and family must have been in Gardner’s thoughts. One can only imagine his musings over the muzzled ship engine noises that overshadowed the crowded pleasure ship that was retrofitted to serve as a troop carrier.
Perhaps the soldiers were entertained with patriotic music, for among the group were 21 of the company’s musicians. They may have sung from the regiment’s pocket-sized song booklet. There words, many written by the soldiers, were set to familiar tunes.
Among the bandsmen were Arthur Clapp and Frank Brass, both of Muncy. Gardner may have known the musicians, as per his military registration form, as they were employed by Sprout Waldron & Co. The Muncy industry made milling equipment for grinding grain. In addition and according to family oral history, Gardner was a teacher at Biggertown School in his native Jordan Township, Lycoming County, PA.
One would suppose the soldier’s primary thoughts would be of his bride, Sarah Cerilla Long, whom he’d married while home on leave the previous Christmas. Gardner planned the wedding by writing a request to the local hotel keeper. In a letter to proprietress Mrs. Robbins, he asked permission to use her parlor as “It is the largest and nicest in town.”
Sarah was the daughter of Charles Long, and according to the census, only three residences separated Gardner’s home from the family of his intended. And so it came to be that the local hotel was the site where the couple pledged their vows, ‘Till death do us part.”
Reality took over when the ship landed at Brest, France, on July 8. The regiment made its way to the front, and along the way, was involved in several serious battles. As Europe had seen nearly four years of fighting, the soldiers witnessed devastating scenes included buildings reduced to rubble, and ammunition blasts had rendered trees to appear as toothpicks against the skyline. This occurred in several areas including Montfaucon, Moirey, Tilly and the Verdun Sector.
The American forces pushed ever so forcefully on to the German stronghold in the Argonne Forest. Around the hills, over gullies, the men fell into shell holes large enough to be sheltered. Regardless of the shells described as “falling like rain,” soldiers were encouraged ever onward. “Over the top,” came the orders.
Intense combat in the final weeks of the war resulted in large casualty counts. When men fell, their spots were filled, likely the reason Private Gardner’s rank advanced from Private to Corporal on October 26. Nine days later, and shortly after his 24th birthday, the machine gunner was killed.
As his body was never officially identified, the war department lists Gardner as ‘Missing in Action.’ However, at Lorraine, France, his name is on the list of those interred in the Meuse-Argonne American Cemetery and Memorial.
Back home at Unityville, at Salem Cemetery, a headstone memorializes Gardner as one of the Great War’s dead. Etched within a circle on the stone are two crossed guns.
Eventually, Sarah would remarry, and though Gardner never fathered children, the soldier has many nieces and nephews currently in the area. Some include Frances Bigger, Dale Gardner, both in the eastern Lycoming area, and Fred Fiester of Sullivan County.
As Gardner’s genealogy includes Boudman/Budman, Gardner, Gordner, Ritter and Sones, plus many area residents are able to claim a connection to the fatality of what would become known as World War I.