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The Parish Bulletin

Corporal F. Gerngross' Letter From France to Father Kirlin.

Etraye, France, Dec. 1, 1918.

Dear Father.

Now that the enemy artillery are no longer "serenading" us, and one may again walk about like a human being in a civilized world and do things in a decent, intelligent manner without being interrupted by some Hun machine gunner who is determined to put your name on the casualty list, or by some nice big gas or shrapnel shell, which seems to carry your identification number on it, I am tackling these few lines, a thing which I have been promising myself to do every since I came out of the first drive, but though the mind was willing the flesh was weak, and we don't get much time to think things over in this game, at least we didn't after we got our first baptism of fire, for after that we were on the jump continually.

Corporal Frederick J. Gerngross in uniform, World War One U.S. Army, 79th Division, 315th Regiment, Company D, 38 KB

As I lay in some muddy shell hole, or dug myself in on some soggy filed, and the bullets from the Boche gun were whistling very close and the high explosive and shrapnel shells were tearing gigantic holes all about me, my thoughts were often back in my dear old parish church and the God there in that Tabernacle, for I realized like every soldier who saw service in these drives that it was He only Whom to look for deliverance from this slaughter, and, believe me, many a man who knew nothing of prayer before learned how to pray (and pray fervently) in some ditch with mud up to his very knees.

We left our good old soil on the 9th of July [1918], embarking from Hoboken on the former German liner "Amerika," now re-christened the "America," [U.S.S. America] and arrived in the harbor of Brest, France, on the 18th of the same month. Our trip over was uneventful, but this was probably because we were so well convoyed, the submarines being most conspicuous by their absence. We had a little excitement at midnight of the fifth day out, when we rammed and sank a British freighter, saving but eight of her crew of forty-five. From Brest we traveled in box (cars) almost across France to Esnoms, where we were in training until the end of August, when we moved up into the "scrapping" sector, taking over the front line in a sector of the Argonne from the French troops early in September. We held this line for eight days, and were then relieved for a day and "shoved" back into the lines on another sector, where we went over the top at the start of our big drive on September 25th [1918]. We advanced steadily for five days (passing our objective), amidst the most terrific fire of high explosive [H.E.], shrapnel and gas shelling. You no doubt have read of this battle, of the casualty list of our outfit tells at what cost we forged ahead. Like the rest of my comrades, who came out of that scrap, I fell as if a miracle had been performed in that I passed amidst such a hail of machine-gun bullets and artillery shelling, though in truth, I must write that I went over the top and amongst death itself without the slightest fear, for I made my peace with my God and felt ready to meet Him at any stride, and this game me confidence which has stuck with me right until the last shot was fired on the 11th of last month [November 1918]. Beside, and mixed with this confidence, was a self-assurance hard to explain, but somehow I just felt that the enemy just couldn't hit me as we went forward for those awful five days across that ground which seemed the meanest place this side of hell.

To write all that happened on that drive and since then would fill a book and take more time than I could get off in this outfit, but briefly I will write that as we advanced we could see that the enemy left in quite a hurry, that is, some of them did, for some never left and others we took out as we reached and crossed their trenches. They left behind machine gunners and snipers by the dozens to delay us, and these Huns would stick at their jobs until we "got" them or until their last bullet, and then yell "Kamerad!" We took Montfaucon on our second day, and that afternoon, evening and night we got the lustiest shelling they could put across, and several times we were forced back a short stretch as we tried to advance behind the tanks. We were not to be stopped, though, and with our fast thinning ranks we again started them running until we were relieved by another division. We had been out of food and water long before this, getting along on munching a cracker or so and drinking water out of shell holes. They had tried repeatedly to get hot meals to us, but artillery fire of the enemy always controlled the roads. After being relieved we rested a week or so in different woods, and were again brought forward into the Belleau woods (about fifteen miles north of Verdun, and a little farther west of Alsace-Lorraine), where we fought and held the line for a week. We were again relived for a day or so, and then started forward on another drive. Starting 3 o'clock in the afternoon we advanced three kilometers to the village of Etraye before darkness, and in the morning we went a few more, being halted by a terrific resistance at the foot of a series of hills (regular mountains), which we then endeavored to take. We lay with a small railroad embankment as protection all that day and night (the frost coating our helmets and making things miserable, for we were soaked with rain from the day before), and their artillery just filled the air with "flying death." It was here that shrapnel tore my raincoat, overcoat and leather vest in several places without harming me, and one small fragment pierced all my clothing and just broke the skin of my arm. The next day was very foggy, and under cover of it we were circling the hills, and the next morning (peace day [11 November 1918]) found us in a very tight hole between hills. It is almost an admitted fact that our company would have been annihilated there if peace hadn't come when it did, and we certainly didn't forget this in our prayers on Thanksgiving Day, for surely we had one extra item added to the much we had to be thankful for. Not one hour had elapsed after the last shell when I and a few comrades arose and waved our arms to those who had been our enemy just a short time ago, and, receiving a similar reply, we crossed the line and had quite a conversation, in which I found out much about how they were existing and what they thought of our infantry and artillery, and, believe me, their thoughts didn't coincide with their Kaiser's speech.

We don't know just where we are going from here, but we have been told our next destination is Luxemburg; however, we expect to be home soon.

Our company is on guard for the coming twenty-four hours, and my name is on the roll, so I've got to get all "fussed up" and be ready shortly, so I must close wishing the entire Precious Blood Parish and its pastor and assistants a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Yours in the service,
FRED. J. GERNGROSS.
Corporal Fred. J. Gerngross, Co. D,
315th Inf., A.E.F., France


Notes:

Source: The Parish Bulletin, pages 4-7, of Most Precious Blood of Our Lord Roman Catholic Church, Archdiocese of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Father Joseph Kirlin organized Most Precious Blood Parish in 1907 and a chapel was opened at 28th Street and Susquehanna Avenue that year. (The church at 28th and Diamond Streets, Strawberry Mansion, was not built until 1927.) (The parish was merged with others and the church closed in 1993.)

Location of French Towns

Étraye; is a commune of the Department of Meuse. The town of Le Val-d'Esnoms is in the Department of Haute-Marne, as is Esnes-en-Argonne (southeast of Montfaucon and Malancourt). Both departments are in the Grand Est region of France (in the area of Verdun on the map, just southwest of Luxemburg).

Company D was part of the First Battalion of the 315th Infantry, 79th Division, United States Army. A.E.F. = American Expeditionary Force. The force was intended to be in all ways self-sufficient, for instance with its own headquarters, transportation, catering and medical officers.

Left shoulder patch of World War One U.S. Army uniform, 79th Division, 315th Regiment, Company D, 12 KB
Uniform collar pin, World War One U.S. Army, 79th Division, 315th Regiment, Company D, 10 KB

It does not seem possible to read the uniform's shoulder flash (shoulder patch) in the photograph. It may be the symbol of the 79th Division, namely the Lorraine Cross. That seems possible because the collar pin shows 315 (over crossed rifles) D (beneath the crossed rifles), signifying the 315th Infantry Regiment, Company D.

The Army Transport Service, Passenger List states that Frederick J. Gerngross departed Hoboken, New Jersey, in the ship "America" on 9 July 1918. His home is stated to be 2723 Diamond Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and his father George Gerngross is named as who to notify in case of emergency. The military unit is stated to be Company D 315th Infantry N[ational].A[rmy]., his rank: Private, and his Service Number 3110415. He is number 22 on the list.

The Draft Registration Card for Fred J Gerngross says that is twenty-three years old, having been born on 11 June 1893 in Baltimore Maryland, that he is a natural-born citizen, without prior military service, unmarried and living at 2723 Diamond Street in Philadelphia. The card states the he is tall, of medium build, with blue eyes and blonde hair. The date of registration is 5 June 1917. At that time he was employed as a Superintendent for the United States P[ost]. O[ffice]. Dept, New Haven, Connecticut.

Signature from World War One Draft Registration card, 15 KB

According to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania's Veteran's Compensation Application (15 February 1934), Frederick J. Gerngross' military service was from 26 May 1918 to 9 June 1919; his grade: Corporal; Engagements: Sector 304 - Montfaucon - Grand Montange - Troyon. (The veteran's compensation awarded was $10/month for 12 months = $120.)

About Frederick J. Gerngross

Frederick Joseph Gerngross Sr. was born on 11 June 1893 in Baltimore, Maryland, and died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 24 December 1969.

The 1920 United States Federal Census names Frederick's father George, age 61, as head of household. Both Frederick's mother Carolina, age 54, and his father George are stated to have been born in Germany (George in Nürnburg), immigrated to America in 1883 and become U.S. citizens in 1892. The 1940 census states the Frederick had completed four years of high school.

Frederick is buried in Holy Sepulchre Cemetery, Cheltenham, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, with his father George (1858-1921) and his mother Caroline (née Burkhardt) (1864-1927), and his wife Emma F. Gerngross (née Kistner) (1899-2001). Frederick married Emma in 1921 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Emma was born in Pennsylvania, her parents in Germany).


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Last revised: 7 August 2019 : 2019-08-07 and 20 June 2019 : 2019-06-20 by Robert [Wesley] Angelo.

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