Indiana roadside tribute keeps story of WWI soldier alive
By DAVE BANGERT | Journal & Courier | Published: July 8, 2018
ROCKFIELD, Ind. (AP) — Marjorie Been looked up from her chore of dead-heading the red geraniums blooming in a barrel planter on the east side of Rockfield, her Carroll County hometown, surprised to hear that neighbors say people still stop to take pictures at the spot she's tended for decades.
Brenda Lohrman, who lives right next door to the grassy triangle and took over mowing duties a year ago, said cars stop - "A couple a week, maybe," she said - to see a maple tree planted nearly 100 years ago to honor one of Rockfield's own and the sign Been's husband, Norman, built nearly 40 years ago to mark the spot at the three-way intersection of Rockfield Road, Erie Street and County Road 650 North.
"They say that?" Marjorie Been asked, plucking another spent bloom, a mile off the Hoosier Heartland Highway and about 25 miles northeast of Lafayette. "I didn't know anyone cared all that much, anymore."
The 1942 Rockfield High School grad stooped to pick up a small U.S. flag that blew to the ground in a brief morning storm. She wedged it back into the rounded, wood posts that hold the sign her husband built in 1980. The sign, with words written over a grayscale image of a doughboy carrying a U.S. flag, reads:
"This tree was planted in memory of Sgt. Harry Bohannon, the first soldier from Carroll County to give his life for his country in World War I. Bohannon was born in Rockfield on June 15, 1890 - missing July 1, 1918. Lost in River Marne, somewhere in France."
"So, they're taking pictures?" Majorie Been asked, surveying a tree that has seen better days and a sign that she figures could probably stand to have the moss scrubbed off and a new coat of paint.
"Well, that's good," she said. "We grew up with that story. But we always thought it was worth telling. Still do. Harry Bohannon was from Rockfield."
The story, 100 years ago this July 1, was told by the handful of weekly newspapers that dotted Delphi and the rest of Carroll County, as well as Indiana State Archives records, at a pivotal point for the U.S. involvement in World War I.
Bohannon, one of three children born to David and Annie Bohannon, was born in June 1890 in Kempton, Indiana, and moved 42 miles to Rockfield month later. There's not much available about where he went to school or much about his young adult life before he enlisted for the U.S. Army in Logansport in August 1917. (Judy Ferrier, a great-niece living in Bloomington, Illinois, said Harvey Bohannon - her grandfather and Harry's older brother - said the Bohannon siblings, including sister Louise, performed as an a cappella trio in churches and community events.) His war records kept by the Indiana State Archives list him as a laborer. He wasn't married and had no children.
Bohannon, promoted to sergeant after training stops at Ft. Thomas, Kentucky, and Camp Greene, North Carolina, shipped for Europe aboard the USS President Lincoln in March 1918, part of the 38th Infantry, 3rd Division.
On July 1, 1918, two weeks before the start of the Second Battle of the Marne - a three-week battle that helped turn the tide for the Allies along the Western Front - Bohannon was part of a scouting mission sent across the River Marne near Chateau Thierry, about 60 miles from Paris. His entry in the Gold Star Honor Roll says the Army listed him as severely wounded and drowned.
At the time, details trickled back slowly to his mother and family in Rockfield, where family was holding out hope that he was just missing.
Under the headline, "Sgt. Bohannon still missing," the Oct. 26, 1918, edition of the Carroll County Citizen-Times printed two letters sent to his sister and mother.
In a letter dated Sept. 1, 1918 - Postmark: "Somewhere in France" - George Horst, chaplain for the 38th Infantry, 3rd Battalion, relayed to Louise Bohannon what he knew at that point, two months after Bohannon disappeared:
"Your brother was a real soldier and because of his bravery and fearlessness was selected together with a number of others to make a raid across the Marne River and gather a few prisoners, for information purposes. However the Germans were waiting for them, although they did land on the other side of the river. It is impossible for us to tell what happened to all of the men. We fear they were killed. Of course, there is hope that he was taken a prisoner, but since no word has been received to that effect up to date, it becomes more and more improbable. The men went over at night, they were fired upon in the darkness and furthermore they were not the kind to be taken prisoners. From the sound of the firing, the Germans also paid a heavy price. .
"He was instrumental in helping us win the great victory of the Marne."
W.R. Castle, director of communications for the American Red Cross, also painted a grim picture about the prospects of finding Bohannon, dead or alive. From the letter published that same day by the Carroll County Citizen-Times: "Today testimony has come to us and although it says nothing definite and is not official, it shows what Sgt. Bohannon went through and I feel that I must make you realize that we may probably not hear anything more."
Confirmation of Bohannon's death came in a Nov. 29, 1918, letter Castle wrote to Annie Bohannon. The Carroll County Citizen-Times published the letter - based on a firsthand account by a soldier identified only as "McBride" and the only surviving member of the eight-man boat that carried Bohannon across the Marne - in its Dec. 7, 1918, edition.
The letter says the group was part of "a raiding party of about sixty. It seems that there was an alarm given, the party had not fully succeeded when the Germans began shooting from all sides."
Castle wrote that McBride watched from the German side of the bank, clinging to the exposed root of a tree - "the Germans directly over him" - for a full day after the raid until he could get back across the river under the cover of night. McBride's account told of at least one soldier getting shot during the raid and others going into the Marne on the way back to the U.S.-held side.
"Bohannon called out, 'Help, help, Harvey,'" Castle wrote. "McBride is fairly sure that (Corp. Daniel) Harvey went to his assistance, and they were both drowned."
Bohannon was 28.
The tributes to Bohannon and his service followed back home.
In September 1919, less than a year after the Armistice, the American Legion Post based in Delphi was named for him. His congregation, Rockfield Presbyterian Church, installed a bronze plaque that still hangs in the sanctuary. The April 23, 1921, edition of Carroll County Citizen-Times reported that the Carroll County War Mothers met for an all-day social and business meeting, ending with this note: "Rain prevented the carrying out of part of the program, as it was planned to plant a tree in honor of Harry Bohannon, who was the first Carroll County boy to lose his life in the World War."
When that tree actually was planted isn't clear. Carroll County Historian Mark Smith says it could have happened as late as 1927.
Also in question is Bohannon's status, repeated often in the earliest accounts and continued through the next century, as the first from Carroll County to die in World War I.
Bohannon is one of 14 Carroll County men listed as casualties during World War I, according to the Gold Star Honor Roll, a tribute assembled and published in 1921 by the Indiana Historical Commission. In all, the book - a yearbook of sorts to those who died in service - includes "3,354 sons and 15 daughters of Indiana," as then-Gov. James Goodrich noted in the preface. (The first Hoosier soldier to die in the war is listed as James Bethel Gresham, a private from Evansville who was killed during an early morning raid on Nov. 3, 1917, near Artois, France.)
The Gold Star Honor Roll listed two other men as being from Carroll County who died before Bohannon while being deployed.
- Samuel Skellenger moved to Carroll County in early life, according to the Indiana State Archives. He was a carpenter, with a wife, Rebecca, and two children when he joined the Navy. Where he lived in Carroll County wasn't specified in the state records. He was aboard the USS Cyclops, a ship that was lost without a trace in a part of the Atlantic known as the Bermuda Triangle, between March 4-13, 1918. More than 300 passengers and crew died. Skellenger was 25. Carroll County papers covered the disappearance of the USS Cyclops, listing Skellenger as being aboard and as a Camden resident. When asked for her husband's records, Rebecca Skellenger said their home in recent years had been in Wisconsin and Florida and had been in the process of returning to Indiana. "Mr. Skellenger was not living in Indiana at the time of his enlistment, yet he is listed as one of the Indiana boys," Rebecca Skellenger told the Indiana Historical Society in a handwritten note. "You do as you think best, but I think he would be called an Indiana boy."
- Joseph King Clark, a Cutler native and a private in the U.S. Marine Corps, died at age 27 on May 25, 1918, of bronchial pneumonia after spending a month in a French hospital. On April 13, 1918, Clark had been gassed while fighting in the Verdun Sector in France, according to Indiana Historical Commission records. He is buried in Mont Osche Cemetery in Souilly, France. A headline in the Flora Hoosier Democrat on June 22, 1918, declared: "Joe Clark Dies in France; First Casualty of Carroll Boys on the Battle Front." The story said Clark had been living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, working at a hotel there before enlisting.
Those dates and headlines - in many of the same papers that claimed Bohannon was the first from Carroll County killed in the war - were new ones on Marjorie Been, who was instrumental in perpetuating the memory of the Rockfield soldier a few blocks from her home.
"That's just what we learned all those years in Rockfield," Been said.
The same went with the family lore for Ferrier, who heard some stories about her great Uncle Harry from her grandfather, Harvey Bohannon. (One family tree note: Ferrier's cousin is George Winston, making the new age pianist a great-nephew of Harry Bohannon, as well.)
"We keep Uncle Harry's photo, the one in his uniform, on the wall downstairs," Ferrier said. "Now I'm thinking, with it being 100 years, how I need to get back to visit the cemetery."
Bohannon has a headstone in the family plot in the Rockfield Cemetery.
Marjorie Been said she's more concerned about preserving the monuments at the edge of the town, which is the center, of sorts, for Rock Creek Township, population 475, according to U.S. Census estimates.
Lightning took out a number of limbs of Bohannon's tree last summer, needing assistance from Rock Creek Township Trustee Don Leisure to clean up. Vines run up the trunk. Several of the biggest branches haven't leafed out this season.
"I'm not sure how long it's going to last," Been said. "They get talking about taking it down every now and then, but I haven't heard much of that lately. I don't think I'm going to be happy when they do."
The sign, marking why the tree is there, had to be replaced a few years ago when someone tried to make the turn from County Road 650 North too fast on wet pavement and slid through the grassy spot.
"We got it back up," Been said. "And I think we'd do it, again, if we have to. I hope we don't have to."
Been went back to tidying the flowers and tossing aside small sticks, satisfied that the barrel planter of geraniums in front of the sign she helped put up in 1980 looked as good as they were going to for the 100th anniversary of Harry Bohannon's death overseas.
"You say they might be taking pictures," Been said. "First, second, last killed, I don't know. But Harry Bohannon was Rockfield's. I know that."