Letter From WWI Veteran Like a Message in a Bottle

By JOSEPH HARNESS | Nov 07, 2018
Courtesy of: Joe Harness

One afternoon about 20 years ago, when I lived in Florida, I stopped at the famous Haslam’s book store in St. Petersburg. A tall volume in the used book section caught my interest. It was titled History of the Twelfth Engineers.

The 12th Engineers were a light railway regiment recruited mainly from the railroad men of St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo. They were unsung soldiers whose mission in France was to keep the front supplied with munitions, medicines and rations. 

They spent the first part of their war deployment, from the middle of 1917 to the middle of 1918, in camp in England and then working in the British military railway system near the Somme. In March 1918, they barely escaped an advance of the enemy during the German Spring Offensive.

In June they were transferred to American authority and operated rail lines in the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives. They returned to America aboard the U.S.S. Cape May in April 1919.

The book must have been shelved there at Haslam’s or in some other dusty corner of the city for nearly 30 years. Pulling it down, I began leafing through the pages and a small letter fell out, like a message in a bottle that had been tossed out on the seas of time.

The letter drew me in to an old veteran’s end days in the Sunshine City. It took me to the soul of a man who had no one to pass his proudest memory to. I read what he wrote:

                                               February 20, 1973

               TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN


Accept this History with honor,

read it with pride,

treasure it always, and

hand it down through the generations.


                     Sincerely yours,

                 Sam S. Stodder, Private 1st Class

                     Company B – Twelfth Engineers, AEF,


           England and France

                     August 12th, 1917 – April 14, 1919.


          That the babe on Mother’s knee

          May not know the scourge of war,

          Shock on land and shock on sea,

          Undisturbed by Teuton Greed,

          Free from gore of enemy’s hand,

          That the little child may dream

          On and on of Fairyland.

                                                                       S. S. S.

In our non-letter writing age, this simple declaration from a nearly anonymous soldier of the Great War is the most powerful correspondence I have ever received. Though he did not know us, he spoke from the heart, and hoped past all of the subsequent war and horror of the 20th century that his generation’s sacrifice had somehow given us a better world.

Joseph Harness is a member of the Tuckerton Historical Society and a veteran who lives in Parkertown.



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