RALEIGH, N.C. (Tribune News Service) — In 1918, a 22-year-old soldier from Raleigh went charging across the French battlefield until a German shell burst over his head, knocking him back so forcefully that it shattered the bones in his feet.

Harry Watson got all the honors a young lieutenant could expect on the Western Front — a hasty burial under a fruit tree, laid shoulder-to-shoulder with three other men.

But when the guns went silent and the grass grew back at Cantigny, Watson’s mother wrote the Army and asked to ship her boy back to Raleigh, where she could bury him with family at Oakwood Cemetery.

And suddenly, nobody could find him.

The fate of Harry Watson became a detective story that took 10 years to solve — a case of mistaken identity that required interference from N&O Publisher Josephus Daniels, the detailed recollections of a gravedigger and a letter from a Raleigh dentist describing the missing soldier’s gold tooth.

“He was just a kid,” said Robin Simonton, Oakwood’s executive director, preparing for Monday’s Memorial Day service. “As complicated as it is for us, it must have been just as complicated for them.”

Watson grew up on North Person Street in Raleigh, and as a young man, he worked for what is now First Citizens Bank. He enlisted in the Army in 1917, seized by the fervor that struck men of his generation. He quickly rose to lieutenant before meeting his end at Cantigny, the first major American offensive in World War I.

The front lines of World War I

As a young officer on the front lines, he would have witnessed hand-to-hand fighting around the trenches, and experienced shelling so severe that it leveled the entire village for which his battle is named.

But by 1922, the country had largely moved on, and Lillian Watson’s letters to the government asking for a single soldier’s whereabouts did not turn many bureaucratic wheels. Little reached the grieving mother other than a request that she furnish dental records, which she did, thanks to Dr. H.O. Lineberger, who forwarded information about the gold inlay on Watson’s incisor.

And time dragged on.

Until Josephus Daniels personally wrote to the Secretary of War.

Former Secretary of the Navy gets involved

Watson, it turned out, had an uncle who was the N&O’s business manager — a right-hand-man for the Raleigh publisher. And because Daniels had just finished his stint as Secretary of the Navy, finding Watson became one of Washington’s top priorities.

“She is a widow,” Daniels wrote of the missing soldier’s mother, “and has not yet recovered from the shock.”

While the Army quartermaster’s office went busily shuffling through files, Daniels made it easy for them with a second letter: Talk to C.R. Huebner at Camp Benning, who served alongside Watson, and to Jim Quinn, who buried him and has a map.

“The young man’s mother is greatly distressed,” Daniels wrote.

The Army quickly found Huebner, who recalled his comrade’s burial beneath a fruit tree and confirmed Quinn as gravedigger. in the months and years that followed, the tree-shaded grave would be located, as would records of the soldiers inside being relocated to more permanent resting places in a Castigny cemetery.

In one of those graves, No. 28, investigators discovered an officer with USR ornaments on the collar, leather-lined breeches, pigskin puttees, size 8 shoes and, significantly, a gold inlay on the second tooth from the center. In addition to all this, the Army learned this soldier had a bullet hole in his skull with the left side of his face shot away.

The quartermaster’s office fired off a letter to Quinn: Sound like our man?

A gold tooth, but also a face

But it would take until 1928 to find Quinn, who had bounced around Memphis without a forwarding address.

When he finally turned up, the former officer penned a four-page letter by hand, detailing the trench he dug for “Watson, Curry, Bodenstab and another officer whose name I have forgotten.”

The uniform all sounded right, as did the gold tooth, but Watson had no marks on his body except from the skin under each eye, which had bled from the shell’s concussive force.

The Raleigh lieutenant’s face was otherwise intact, not shot away, but Quinn gruesomely theorized that perhaps Watson had been blown apart by a shell after he’d been buried.

Quinn told the Army he’d seen it happen before.

A case of mistaken identity

What followed is confusing to follow and grisly to imagine.

But somehow, through its efforts, the Army’s investigators learned that one of those soldiers in that mass grave had a piece of identifying material on his body, which included the name Lt. E. Comeford.

And somehow, by trying to track down what became of Comeford, they learned that he wasn’t dead at all, let alone resting in a trench in northern France.

And somehow, as they sorted through the paperwork, they concluded that someone must have found Comeford’s property among the dead, checked the name against muster rolls and determined that the body belonged to Capt. Willis E. Comfort, who was also killed in action.

Close enough.

So when Comfort’s family in Kansas asked for their boy’s body, the Army returned to the fruit tree and dug up the man marked Comeford, shipping him home to be buried Manhattan.

But it wasn’t Comeford, who was very much alive, and it wasn’t Comfort, who was buried miles away.

It was poor Watson, howling in protest from the great beyond.

Army Quartermaster General B.F. Cheatham wrote to Lillian Watson, a decade after her son’s death, apologizing for “one of those sad errors that are bound to occur in a great war.”

Comfort’s family, in Kansas, got one, too.

Today, Watson’s grave sits in Oakwood’s northwest corner with this wish chiseled on the stone: “May he rest in peace and light perpetual shine upon him.”

He is recognized as Raleigh’s first casualty in “the world war.” But more would follow — casualties and wars alike.

Oakwood Cemetery Memorial Day observance

Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh will hold a Memorial Day service at 4 p.m. Monday. All are welcome.

©2023 Raleigh News & Observer.


Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

(Oakwood Cemetery (Raleigh, N.C.))

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