On Tuesday, Jun 13, we departed Meaux with our shuttle driver at 10:48 am (The driver was not Mr. Tan but another very professional driver. Too bad – we had so much we wanted to tell the loquacious Mr. Tan.) By 12:31 pm, we had completed the check-in and security screening at Charles de Gaulle Airport and were lunching on sandwiches at our departure gate.
We arrived in Chicago a few minutes ahead of schedule, retrieved our luggage and drove home to Charleston. We were treated to a spectacular display of lightning in a line of thunderstorms to our south, and we passed through a little bit of heavy rain around Kankakee. We pulled in our driveway around 11:00 pm and entered a warm and stuffy house. Our pet-sitter and friend Jerry Amendt had alerted us that, since the weather had been in the 90’s, they had turned on the air conditioning, but it wasn’t keeping up. Though air was blowing, it was no longer cooling. We were lucky to be able to get a repairman to come the next day, and it turns out that we’ll need to replace the unit. (An interesting coincidence – when the AC repair man was answering a question I asked, he mentioned that his work has exposed him to phosgene gas on more than one occasion. He described a couple of close encounters he’d had, and we told him that we’d just learned quite a bit about the use of phosgene gas in WW I.) Our AC likely won’t be fixed before next Monday. In the meantime, we’ll just deal with the heat and savor the memories of our trip.
So that you will know the final chapters of the stories of my cousin Harry Swift and my great aunt Agnes Swift, I am offering this addendum about them:
After the Armistice, Agnes was granted leave from 10 to 16 December 1918, and she traveled with three other Base Hospital 32 nurses -- Madge Baldwin, Philomena Bauer and Bessie Whitaker -- to Lyon, Nice, Monte Carlo, Menton, Grasse, and Paris, returning to Contrexéville, “very tired but full of new and varied ideas of France & the wonderful A.E.F. and Red Cross.” She came back just in time to join in a Christmas celebration that the American Red Cross hosted for the local children at Contrexéville. By January, the hospital was packing up to leave, and in March the unit received orders to ship out.
Agnes arrived in New York City on March 22, 1919 on board the SS Louisville, along with other members of Unit R (the southeastern Iowa group of medical and enlisted personnel who served with Base Hospital 32. Five days later, she was on her way home to Washington, IA. She traveled by train to Chicago, where she sent a telegram to her family to let them know which train she would take to Washington once she reached Davenport. She did not know that her father had died in her absence. Her sisters Julia and Martina traveled to Davenport and boarded the train to give her the sad news and to travel the rest of the way to Washington with her. After being relieved from active duty on May 3, 1919, Agnes returned to private life and resumed her nursing duties, accepting a position as the matron (supervisor) at a hospital in Leon, IA, and also working as a private duty nurse until her health began to fail.
While in service, Agnes developed a coronary problem, due to the long stressful hours in the operating room and war duty. Thousands of Allied wounded were sent to Base Hospital 32, which operated as an evacuation hospital for much of the time after mid-September 1918. The urgency to move patients was paramount, and opportunities for rest were rare. In a few short years after her return, Agnes’s health began to deteriorate. She rallied briefly, but hopes dimmed in the summer of 1923 when her health rapidly failed.
Agnes died on 14 July 1923 in Washington, IA, and was laid to rest with full military honors in Elm Grove Cemetery on her 43rd birthday. The ceremony was attended by hundreds, including fifteen doctors and thirty nurses of Unit R and grateful patients who traveled many miles to pay their final respects. Her flag-draped coffin was carried through the streets with a mounted escort in one of the largest funeral corteges that Washington had ever seen. Without pre-arrangement, all business was suspended while the procession passed. Her pallbearers were all uniformed servicemen, including her second cousin Harry Swift and my godfather Frank Wheelan.
When Harry was injured (in a gas attack near the River Ourcq on July 27, 1918), he was treated in an American military hospital (perhaps at Contrexéville, and cared for by his cousin Agnes Swift) and eventually returned to his unit and was with them at the Armistice and during the occupation of Germany in 1919. He returned home to Washington and was discharged at Camp Dodge, IA, on May 17, 1919. He married Elsie Richards, and they had one daughter, Patricia. On December 23, 1933, he and his family went to town on a Saturday night. He told his brother-in-law that they’d be right back because he felt tired. While in town, he told Elise that he did not feel well and was going to go wait in the car. But before he reached the car, he dropped dead on the street. At his funeral, the pallbearers were Palmer Wilson, Howard Freshwaters, Charles Minick, Floyd Banks, Dale Denison and Clayton Neiswanger. The first five of the bearers were his buddies in France who were with him at the River Ourcq, and the sixth was commander of the newly formed local post of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.
When I was a child, I frequently heard the name of Harry Swift, always accompanied by the comment, “he was gassed at Château-Thierry.” Until this year, I really did not understand the events which led up to his injury. Likewise, in my grandmother’s house hung a beautiful photographic portrait of her sister, Agnes Swift. When I asked, “Who is that?” the response always brought a solemn and respectful description of her as “a great woman.” Not until another cousin compiled and shared details about her war record and the letters to her family did I become more curious about Contrexéville.
This trip was such a great learning experience for us both. Not only did we see the country for which my great aunt and cousin fought, but we made new friends and discovered new places. Thanks to Steve’s excellent research and planning of our route each day, we were able to finally use the touring bicycles we purchased with just this kind of trip in mind.
I hope to share our photos and some of our lessons with people in Washington, IA, and I think our visit may even have an impact in Contrexéville, too. While waiting at the airport to board our plane to Chicago, I received an email reply from Mr. Jordan Benhamou, the director of the Casino at Contrexéville. He writes:
Dear Mrs Daniel,
Thank you for these photos that I find very interesting. After talking with my collaborators I think we will organize an exhibition of your photos (if you do not mind) to share this story with the inhabitants of Contrexéville. If this is done, I will send you photos of the exhibition.