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Students Remembered
John O. W. Donaldson
From "My Capture and Escape" by Lieutenant John O. W. Donaldson in Harper's Magazine, July 1919

The propensity to value the general histories of educational institutions that often only regard its matriculates as statistics with passing mention of their experiences and sentiments should not diminish the importance of the personal stories and memories of students that participated in WWI. Under this frame of mind, the wartime correspondence of Talmage W. Gerrald, Thomas C. Herbert, and John O.W. Donaldson served to illustrate that what is gleaned from their writings often humanizes the history of the global conflict. In effect, a kind of “bottom-up” historical interpretation is presented that complements the traditional accounts and gives them new meaning. Although the biographies of these three students are available here, I intend to provide supplementary information based on the primary sources that I studied (1).

Talmage W. Gerrald was a recent Furman Fitting School alumnus who joined the American Expeditionary Forces headquartered in France in the summer of 1917. He died in the Battle of Cantigny in late May 1918 and was cited for “conspicuous gallantry” in attempting to save a wounded man in a hostile environment. What followed was an outpouring of condolences by various organizations and intimates to his surviving mother. Representatives of the American Expeditionary Forces and the Salvation Army expressed their sympathies and envisioned Gerrald’s sacrifice in heroic or godly terms, respectively. Friends of the family and close relatives also authored letters indicating their grief. The American Red Cross, under the direction of the Graves Registration Service of the Army, was able to photograph and distribute pictures of American war casualties to their relatives, and his mother was among them. These efforts by a diverse group of individuals and organizations signified that remembering the dead, especially the honored ones, is a part of human nature and social custom (2).

Thomas C. Herbert was a Wofford alumnus and a University of South Carolina law student when he was called to serve in France as a member of the Motor Transport Corps in late 1917. He survived the war but was said to have contracted lobar pneumonia afterwards, which ultimately killed him on February 20, 1919 near Langres, France. Although there were fewer instances of memorialization efforts noted for Herbert’s collection, they were not deficient in significance. On his behalf, his family received a certificate from the U.S. Department of War honoring the sacrifice Herbert made in the service to his country. Also, USC conducted a memorial exercise program on its campus on April 29, 1919, as a dedication to the memory of students and alumni of the university who died serving the United States during the World War. In the collection, there were even a few duplicates of a 1917 military map of France, and one of them had a star inscribed in close proximity to Langres. This act was for the purpose of associating the place where Herbet died and was buried with his memory. Furthermore, a 1914 map of the major battlegrounds between the Allied and Central Powers denoted each battle of the conflict with a circle. A circle was drawn for Langres that was marked darker than all the rest. Unlike the organizational forms of condolence, the European maps elicited a feeling of intimacy for the departed underscored in the effort to memorialize the location of his death and burial (3).

John O.W. Donaldson was a former Furman student and student of Sibley College (now the College of Civil Engineering) at Cornell University who was accepted into the Royal Air Force in the middle of 1918. He also survived the war but was killed in a stunt-flying accident in 1930. Unlike the other two students, Donaldson was commemorated in both life and death. He achieved this dual recognition due to his becoming a famed flying ace during the summer of 1918. Furthermore, Donaldson’s admired status was significantly augmented by Harper’s Magazine July 1919 publicized account of his two daring escapes as a prisoner-of-war to the German forces during the fall of 1919. As he was highly decorated as a soldier in life, so he was in death. The most obvious form of dedication was in renaming the Greenville Air Force Base in South Carolina, after Donaldson in 1951. Although the base ceased air-force type operations in the 1960s, it has remained important for military veterans. For instance, the American Legion Post 3 in Greenville preserved a newspaper article commemorating the character and skill of Donaldson and how those qualities manifested in the workings of the Air Force Base. Although Donaldson was the most prominent of the students studied, each of their wartime experiences provided a new perspective of how affected individuals related to WWI. Based on how they were remembered, they became the honored dead for intimates, organizations, and future generations (4).

Works Cited

1 Talmage W. Gerrald, Thomas Carlisle Herbert and John O.W. Donaldson Collections, Furman University Archives, Greenville, SC.

2 Talmage W. Gerrald Collection, Furman University Archives, Greenville, SC.

3 Thomas Carlisle Herbert Collection, Furman University Archives, Greenville, SC.

4 John O.W. Donaldson Collection, Furman University Archives, Greenville, SC.