I walked up the street to City Hall the other day to talk to Pat Perry, the city historian.
It’s interesting the city has a historian, but then when you get into the main part of the office there you see how much this city values its history — as it should. The walls are covered with framed photos — dozens and dozens — of Sonora through the years.
Perry has a huge aerial photo of downtown taken in the 1960s on the wall and a room full of white binders with titles like miscellaneous obituaries and San Joaquin County marriage licenses. This place is a treasure trove.
Perry’s research of late is World War I, which she ruefully calls the forgotten war.
There are, of course, no surviving veterans of the war American joined in 1917, three years after fierce combat spread through Europe. Yet, even with its late entrance, America lost 53,000 soldiers in combat and another 64,000 to combat-related injuries like influenza.
Perry has found 27 men who died either while in war or after who had ties to Tuolumne County. She used genealogy records and poured over page after page of historic newspapers to find as much as possible about each man. She went to the National Archive in Kansas City, where records from WWI are limited due to a 1973 fire. She said some of the records she saw were singed. She looked at burial case files that are stored in St. Louis.
For some of the men she has the scantest details; others a fulsome story of a life lost too soon. One was William Benney, whose ancestor Perry was able to find and obtain rich details, based largely on letters he had written his mother. She also saw letters a fellow serviceman had written the family.
“In Will’s death we lost a splendid companion and a good soldier. He was always cheerful and generous fellow,” the soldier said.
Benney died in 1918 in France of pneumonia. His burial case file shows his remains were sent back to the United States in 1921, and he is buried in Placerville.
Letters, documents, delightful findings for a historian.
“We need to honor these people,” Perry said.
Perry, along with Allan Bryant, Linda Mellana and Betty Sparagna, are working to do just that. They are planning a display — to be installed by sometime in April — at the Tuolumne County History Museum.
They want to highlight the 27 men and the extraordinary work of the local Red Cross volunteers who knitted socks and rolled bandages for troops serving in a war America was simply not ready to take part in.
Troops were coming down with trench foot, a condition that left untreated can cause gangrene and amputation, but one that is easily prevented. Change socks often to keep feet dry. The Red Cross took care of that.
“It was life saving,” Perry said.
Perry and the others have one problem with their display. They need more artifacts. Perry was surprised to learn how little the museum had about World War I and the men who served.
The committee has a rag clipping machine used to make pillows to hold up fractured limbs and a sword given to Charles Segerstrom — who led the five bond drives — for buying $2,500 in victory bonds when the Victory Loan Trophy Train came to Sonora in 1919.
They are wondering if anyone would like to donate or loan World War I items to the History Museum. Specifically they’d like to have socks or vests made by Red Cross volunteers or the white uniforms they wore — not the ones nurses wore — but the volunteers.
And Perry said she’d love to hear more stories of Sonora at that time.
“Anything to make these people come to life.”
You can contact Perry at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-532-6331.
Lyn Riddle is editor of The Union Democrat. Contact her at email@example.com or 209-588-4541.