It Came from the Archives: A Girl the Wildcats left behind

Two of the Tallassee boys who answered the call in World War I, Willie Pierce, left, and Loman Ballard.

Two of the Tallassee boys who answered the call in World War I, Willie Pierce, left, and Loman Ballard.

When soldiers fight away from home, they leave behind non-combatants – mothers, fathers, siblings, and friends.  Some friends were young women with whom the soldier-boys (and don’t forget that most of them were exactly that) had grown up.  Today’s post concerns one young woman soldiers corresponded with, and what those letters tell us not only about them but about her.

Irene Pierce lived in Tallassee, near Montgomery. It’s probably fair to say that almost all of Irene Pierce’s male friends and relatives were gone for at least part of the time the United States was at war.

Ms. Pierce retained a collection of 19 postcards and 11 letters she received from soldiers.  Her family allowed the Wiregrass Archives to scan this material as a result of a 2008 conference about Alabama in World War I. This became the Irene & J. R. Godwin Collection, Record Group 90, at the Wiregrass Archives.

Irene Pierce
Irene Pierce

Irene Pierce was 22 years old when the US entered World War I.  After completing 8th grade in 1907, she worked as a spooler at the Tallassee cotton mill.

During World War I, she did local Red Cross work like rolling bandages and making comfort kits.  She also participated in the American version of the Marraines de Guerre, a huge network of pen pals originally created for French soldiers in October 1914.  This program expanded in 1917 after the Belgian consulate in the US called for American women to write to soldiers at the front.  

She corresponded with Tallassee boys who left for the war in 1918, like her brother Willie Pierce, her future brother-in-law Loman Ballard, and her future husband, John Godwin, all of whom were drafted into the 81st Infantry Division, called the “Wildcats,” which provides this post’s title.

"Wildcat" Division post card.
“Wildcat” Division post card.

She also became pen pals with soldiers she never met.  One of these was Chester Shrum, a Pennsylvanian in Co I, 328th Regiment, 82nd Division training at Camp Gordon near Atlanta.  This was the same regiment as Sergeant Alvin York, who was in Co. G of the 328th.

Pierce kept four of Shrum’s letters.  His second letter tells us a bit about Irene herself:  she was surprisingly bellicose.  He referred to a recent letter from her: “And so you would like to have a whole hand-full of the Kaiser’s heart, would you? I’m surprised at one little maid.”  By that second letter he was on a mission to court her, so he shared her animosity for the Kaiser. “I want to get hold of that mustache of his first,” he wrote, “THEN we will find out for sure if he has a heart.”

His third letter is very bold. He tells Irene that he considers her one of his best friends and pushes her to meet him, then closes by signing only his first name with a PS stating, “I’ll make all these mistakes a hug even if I can’t give them now.”

Shrum’s friendly note to “Rennie” Pierce

Shrum was obviously enamored of “Rennie” Pierce.  But how did she feel?  It’s telling that he didn’t hear from her again. 

Seven weeks later Shrum wrote his fourth letter, opening with a formal “Dear Miss Pearce” then plaintively asking her if he had offended her.  He ends, “By [sic] losing your correspondence seems more like losing the friendship of some old companion . . . So if there are any ways in which to win back your good graces I would be very glad to hear of them.  Trusting that you will reply . . .” and closing with his initials and last name.

Shrum went on to earn corporal stripes, was captured at the front in October, and remained a POW until the Armistice a month later.  He returned to Camp Merritt in May 1919, and he sent Pierce one last postcard announcing his arrival.  

She kept it but she had another soldier in mind, J. R. Godwin, whom she married in 1920. 

John Godwin
John Godwin

Three years older than Pierce, Godwin avoided going to the mill when he finished 8th grade by working his way to New Orleans and hopping a freighter to China.  Family lore holds that he was a radio operator on that ship, and his service record indicates he had seven years’ experience as a telephone lineman.  

This served him well when he was drafted in May 1918.  Instead of entering a rifle company like the other Tallassee men, Godwin found himself in the 306th Field Signal Battalion of the 81st Division, training at Camp Sevier in South Carolina.  In late July, the 81st shipped from Camp Mills to Liverpool and in August 1918, it sailed to France.  Godwin sent his first letter to Pierce on September 8, 1918, just before he marched to the front at St. Dié. 

Irene wrote him that same day, but her letter didn’t catch up to him for a full month.  It arrived with one she had mailed on July 14.  Godwin replied to both, thanking her for her services, which she had called small – those things like writing letters and rolling bandages.  We learn from Godwin that Pierce “spoke of wanting to come to France as a nurse,” which was a wartime fantasy shared by many who had remained at home.

In November, Godwin and the 81st fought in the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, suffering almost all of its 970 casualties in the final two days of the war.  Immediately after the Armistice, the division marched to Mussy-Sur-Seine where it stayed until May 1, 1919.

All of Godwin’s remaining correspondence came between January 28 and March 18, 1919.  He complained about the lack of mail and that he had nothing to do except, as he wrote, “stand three calls per day,” all mess calls.  He longed to get home, and had not seen any of his friends since seeing Irene’s brother Willie in December.

From Godwin’s letters we know Irene’s family wanted to get Willie back home, though we don’t know why.  Godwin advised them about how to word such requests but ended on a discouraging note that many had failed to get shipped home early.

In April, Godwin caught the flu and was hospitalized for 5 days.  But he recovered enough to march across France to the port of Saint-Nazaire to return to the US.  He arrived in Charleston aboard the USS Roanoke on June 22 and was mustered out of service a week later at Camp Gordon, Georgia, where Chester Shrum had trained.

John Godwin mill guard badge.
John Godwin mill guard badge.

Godwin and Pierce married in 1920, and Irene left the mill in 1922 upon the birth of the first of their seven children.  Though Godwin had fled as far as China to avoid textile mill work, after the war, he, too, worked a full career there.  He took on odd jobs as well, and late in life moved furniture on weekends.

The mill, church, community, family, earning enough to make ends meet filled the lives of the Godwins after World War I.

John Godwin lived until 1960, and Irene lived until 1971.

Chester Shrum died in 1954 and is buried in his family plot in Tarrs, PA.

See the Irene and J.R. Godwin Collection at https://www.troy.edu/about-us/dothan-campus/wiregrass-archives/inventories/090.html

Godwin's U.S.S. Roanoke boarding pass.
Godwin’s U.S.S. Roanoke boarding pass.
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