MADISON GIBSON AND WORLD WAR ONE
It was in June, 1917, while I was clerking in the commissary at Hopkins, Ga. and waiting on an official commission as the Postmaster that Guy Dean and I decided to join the Marines. I went to Folkston to discuss the decision with Papa [Henry Gilbert Gibson] and he told me “Go, and may God always be with you!”
At the recruiting office in Savannah, Guy was accepted but I was turned down because of my slight build. When Guy refused to enlist unless I could come with him, the recruiters relented and said that they would try to fatten me up and they let me join also.
When we enlisted we had the understanding with the Marine recruiters that we would be in the same unit at Paris Island, but I was put in one group and Guy was in another. But Noah Stokes, also from Charlton County, was a drill sergeant there at that time so Guy asked him to try to get us in the same company. Noah said he would do better than that; he would put us in his company. And he did!
Guy and I nearly starved to death during basic training as we were used to good home cooking, not military meals. I wrote Mama [Elizabeth Lee Gibson, Madison’s stepmother] about the poor food we were getting and she sent cakes in the mail. Noah had an office attached to the bunk house and he was in charge of the mail call each evening. If I got a package from home (usually it was a cake Mama sent), Noah would say the box was for him and set it aside. Then after the rest of the men left, Guy and I would go to Noah’s office, open the package and eat the cake without having to share it with the other men.
I had learned the hard way about sharing good things that arrived in the mail from home. Papa had sent me a quart of Georgia cane syrup and I took it to the mess hall. The boy next to me wanted some and then he passed it on down the table and when the bottle got back to me it was empty. After that I didn’t share any food from home and whenever Papa sent me some syrup, Noah kept it in his office.
Guy stayed in the United States and I was soon shipped to France as a mule skinner. That was the last I saw of him until I got back to Folkston after the war. I drew hazardous pay of $6.00 per month in addition to the regular pay that Marines received.
My duty was delivering cooked rations to the front lines of the 82nd Company, 6th Regiment, at night and hauling food supplies from the quartermaster depot to the rolling kitchen in the daytime. The kitchen was equipped with a large iron stove on wheels and was used to prepare meals in ten-gallon pots which were then transferred to my wagon. Because it was safer at night I drove the mules at that time, taking the food to those on the front lines, many times being surrounded on three sides by artillery fire.
Six or eight Marines from the front would come with poles, putting one can on each pole and two men carried each pot back to the hungry, fighting men. They received this hot food only once a day. A typical day’s rations would be stew beef and gravy, rice cooked with raisins, boiled prunes, coffee and all the loaves of French bread they could carry. The food was transported in the same ten-gallon pots in which it had been cooked.
I took shelter under the wagon, which was partly protected by oak thickets, and waited for the Marines to bring the empty containers back. I was by myself most of the time and would remember Papa’s blessing on me. I felt that I was being protected even though shells sometimes landed close to me. I never fired a shot; never missed a day and I never got wounded.
Often when I carried rations to the front, I would have to leave my containers and go back the next day for them. On the way one evening, going back for my cooking pots, I saw a German balloon which I knew was watching me. Just as I was going down a steep hill where the pots were hidden under a concrete bridge, about a dozen artillery shells came over my head and exploded not over a hundred yards from me. The firing then stopped for a few minutes but about the time I finished loading my containers they began raining down again. On the way up the hill one came just over by head and hit about ten feet from my wagon. The shell exploded and pieces of gravel flew up in the air and hit me. I was driving as fast as I could and by the time I reached the top of the hill, shells were falling very close to me. But I got back safely.
Sometimes at night I ran into fogs of poison gas which would sour the food and make it unfit to eat. When I knew I was in a dangerous area I put my gas mask on and also put masks on the mules.
On another trip to the front, one I won’t ever forget, I had a four-mule team and the wagon got stuck. I was accompanied this time by two guides, and the three of us worked all afternoon, all that night and until late afternoon of the next day before fixing the wagon so we could move forward again. That night, just before reaching the front, we had to go down a very steep hill. The guides had instructed me to not speak to the mules because the Germans could hear us. On the way down, the lock broke and the wagon began running and pushing the mules down the hill at a very rapid rate of speed.
About half way down the hill a mule fell and the wagon turned over. During this time, machine gun bullets were hissing over our heads…hundreds of them…and artillery fire was exploding all around us. We sent for a detail of men from the front lines and they picked up our wrecked wagon, reloaded the food and helped us get to the bottom of the hill. The chief cook took me to a cellar to give me a meal while the men unloaded he wagon. I had eaten only one meal for two days and nights and was so sick from excitement that I couldn’t eat then. After drinking a cup of coffee I started back with my team, reaching headquarters after daybreak the next day.
After several days of fighting, sections of Marines would go to the rear and reorganize, replacing those killed in action. My job at that time was feeding the hungry men before they went back to the front lines at night. On one occasion the captain had been killed and was replaced by a young officer that had never been under fire before. After their hot meal and just before they left for the front lines, I heard the captain give a short speech to those who were there to fight with him. He said “You know what war is but I don’t. Let’s go up there and take possession, and if I don’t do what’s right, you are to shoot me.”
I have always regretted that I never knew how that officer fared on the enemy lines.
On the last day of fighting in World War One, a messenger on a motorcycle came to the front lines and told us the war would end and the last shot would be fired at 11:00 o’clock that night. We all just went wild, hollering and shouting. We were in an oak thicket very close to enemy territory and that night we listened for the last shot at 11:00. We heard it and then everything got very, very quiet, and we didn’t hear any more guns going off. As soon as it sunk in that the war was really over, we sang and hollered and shouted till we were hoarse.
For months we hadn’t been allowed to strike a match after dark because the enemy was so close, but after 11:00 that night we all lit up cigarettes and every one of the men built a bonfire. Each man had a separate fire and the woods were lit up all around with the light of them. They did that just for the joy of being able to have a light after the sun went down.
I thought I would be going home as soon as the Armistice was signed but instead of that our regiment followed the German army all the way back to its homeland and we stayed there for more than seven months.
After spending eighteen months of wartime duty without sleeping on a bed, a buddy and I suddenly found our chance for a good night’s rest. We were following the retreating German army through Belgium and Luxemburg and one evening the rolling kitchen was parked near a house that had been completely deserted. We picked out a nice bed in one of the bedrooms but after spending so many nights on uncomfortable cots and the cold ground, we both found we couldn’t sleep on the soft bed and we spent a miserable night there.
After I got back to the United States I spent a week on Long Island and paraded with other Marines for a hundred blocks in New York City, with President Woodrow Wilson watching us from the reviewing stand. Thousands and thousands of people lined the street to watch us go by.
I was discharged in 1919 and rode the train to Folkston. Jesse Brooks was the first person I saw at the depot when I got back and the next one was Donald Pearce who took me home in his car. My family didn’t know when I would be getting back and Papa was the only one at home. He was sitting in the porch swing all by himself for Mama was visiting her folks in Waycross. He was so glad to have me back home that he wired a telegram to Mama telling her to hurry back to Folkston to see me!
Madison Gibson and Lois Barefoot Mays - "Memories of Charlton"