Journey back 100 years to Jasper during WWI
JULY 9, 1918-- In a crowded army tent, a private trades his muddy drill boots for a few sheets of Knights of Columbus letterhead. He knows his evenings here at basic training in West Point, Kentucky, are numbered. His unit commander and officers will be shipped out to the Great War overseas any moment. Within a week, he and the other artillery soldiers will follow. His dog tags hang from his barracks bag, reminding him that his time is drawing closer every day.
War is coming, whether he’s ready or not.
On the crumpled letterhead, right below the words “War Activities,” he makes the only vow he can knows he can keep to the love he left behind.
“As long as I have a chance to live Dolly, I will hang on and fight, for your sake … to come back to you.”
When 22-year-old Clement Berger penned those words to his 18-year-old sweetheart, Mary Borho, he had no idea if he would see his “Dolly” or their Jasper hometown ever again. He knew many of his fellow recruits, men he trained side-by-side with at West Point, would never come back from the conflict overseas.
His heartfelt promise to “fight to the last” is just one of many passionate phrases in his three surviving World War I letters, which were found preserved in Jasper homeowner Phil Mathies’ attic wall last April.
Romantic, poignant and at times wryly humorous, Clement’s words give us a window into early twentieth century Jasper — a little German-American town caught up in the conflict of the Great War, both overseas and on the Indiana home front.
JASPER IN THE EARLY 1900s was a quiet agricultural community where everyone knew everyone. Paved streets branched out from the courthouse square, and the neighborhood stores lining these streets ran on credit. Letters were delivered without addresses, because the mailman knew where the intended recipients lived. The Jasper Herald cost $1 for a one-year subscription. People here prized “honesty, sincerity, truth and thrift,” according to author EO. R. Wilson’s poem celebrating Dubois County’s centennial in The Jasper Herald. Promises were sacred.
On the south lawn of the imposing St. Joseph’s Catholic Church stood a simple cross, placed there in 1848 by early German settlers, whose descendants later dominated Dubois County. Mass was said in German instead of Latin, and children studied German in school. Distinctively German names like Gutzweiler, Stenftenagel and Heichelbeck were commonplace. Mary Hayes, the president of the Dubois County Historical Society, says Jasper was so predominantly German-American that immigrants settling there initially experienced little of the persecution they might have elsewhere in Indiana -- or that they would face in coming years.
It was into this slice of small-town America that Clement Berger was born on July 5, 1898. He was a first-generation American: His father, Andrew J. Berger, emigrated from Wagshurst, Germany, when he was just 16. His parents brought baby Clement home to a little apartment above Berger’s Grocery, their family-run store. He attended school only through eighth grade, like many Hoosiers of the time, and graduated with a “common school education.” He started helping his parents in the store full-time, often delivering grocery orders in the family’s little red delivery truck.
Clement’s life changed forever one afternoon when he stopped by a local restaurant, and a young brunette named Mary Borho brought him his dinner. Clement took one look at her, and “that was that,” says the couple’s granddaughter Lucinda Rudolph.
Mary was also descended from German immigrants. Her family came to America from Durbach, Germany, when her father was 5 years old. Mary had been working since she was 12, when she had to drop out of seventh grade to help support her five siblings. She had already held several jobs, including ironing for a wealthy Jasper family, before she started waitressing.
Courtship was changing across the United States around the time that Clement and Mary began seeing each other. Instead of chaperoned courting on the family porch or in the parlor, couples started going on unsupervised dates to movie theaters or dance halls like Jasper’s own Kunkel’s Hall. Clement and Mary often drove out to the countryside for picnics with a group of friends, Lucinda says. “In all the pictures, Mary has this big frilly garden hat on.”
The couple didn’t let a five-year age gap stand in the way of falling in love. They balanced each other; each had something the other needed, Lucinda says. Besides, Clement reminded Mary in his letters: “On your birthday I am only 4 years and 4 months older.”
Soon, Clement became “Clemmie” and Mary became “Dolly,” “Sweetheart” and “Dearest Darling.”
WHILE CLEMENT AND MARY were falling in love in Jasper, Europe was falling apart. The conflict overseas awakened the traditionally isolationist Hoosiers to world affairs. Then, once Germany began attacking American ships, “Europe’s war” became “our war.” When the United States officially joined the war on April 6, 1917, Indiana Governor James P. Goodrich assured President Woodrow Wilson that “Hoosiers were behind him.” Hoosiers rallied to support the war effort. Farmers planted more corn and wheat. Families tended backyard war gardens.
But Indiana gave more than just crops to the war effort—it sacrificed its lifeblood as well. The state sent over 130,000 troops overseas, including Private Clement Berger.
When he left for training, Clement’s enlistment papers listed his basic information: age: 22; occupation: clerk; eyes: gray; hair: brown; complexion: brown. They didn’t say anything about his family, Berger’s Grocery or the hometown streets that he had to leave behind. And they definitely didn’t tell of his Dolly, who started praying Hail Marys as soon as her intended left Jasper.
With his May 28, 1918, induction into the U.S. Army Artillery he stopped being “Clemmie” and started answering to a new name: Soldier 2899627.
THE WAR RAGING in Europe was not the only conflict facing Clement in 1918. As a member of a German-American community like Jasper, Clement faced strife on the home front as well.
“It’s fair to say that Hoosiers, like a lot of Americans were conflicted during WWI,” IU Department of History Chair Eric Sandweiss says. “There were certainly a lot of first- or second-generation Germans in this state. Through most of the 20th century, more Americans had German ancestry than any other nationality, and many of them did not wish to see their new country go to war with their old one.”
Extensive media coverage of German aggression in Europe, as well as its occupation of Belgium, helped turn Hoosiers opinions against the European nation. “American propaganda helped to drive home the idea that the ‘Huns’ were not the friendly people who ran the grocery down the street, but an inhuman race bent on world domination,” Sandweiss says.
Suddenly, German-Americans in communities like Jasper had to decide where their loyalties would lie: with America, their new home, or with Germany, which many still considered “the Fatherland.”
This choice sometimes proved dangerous. Those who seemed disloyal to America were occasionally attacked or had their homes and businesses broken into. The Jasper Herald reported that when local Lutheran minister Rev. Dagefoerde was charged with being “pro-German,” he received a coil of rope and a note saying if he didn’t leave before 6 o’clock the next day “it would be used on him and used damned quick.” How did Rev. Dagefoerde earn his “pro-German” label? He didn’t campaign for the Liberty loan drive, the Red Cross or the Y.M.C.A. He admitted that he hadn’t offered prayers for “the boys over there” because “he was not certain which side was right,” The Jasper Herald wrote.
In an effort to prove their loyalty to the United States, the German Americans of Jasper Anglicized their names and tried to hide their German customs. Dubois County Historian Arthur Nordhoff says German stopped being taught in schools, and the language disappeared from Mass at St. Joseph’s. In his recorded memoirs, Jasper resident Wilfrid Vollmer Worland recalled that “Vater unser der du bist in Himinel” became “Our Father Who art in Heaven” as a result of WWI.
EVEN THOUGH BOTH CLEMENT AND MARY were of German descent, he didn’t struggle to pick a side in WWI. His loyalty belonged completely to the United States. “That was his duty,” his granddaughter Lucinda says, “to protect this country.” She believes Clement, like many children of German immigrants, had an easier time accepting America as their country than their parents did. “This being a new generation, this was their homeland,” she says. For many German immigrants, coming here was a new start. America meant opportunity, she says, and her grandfather embraced it whole-heartedly.
For Clement, fighting for the United States against Germany meant not only fighting for duty, but also defending the home of the woman he loved. As he wrote Mary, he was willing to sacrifice his life defending “mine and your country ‘across the waters’” so that they might share a brighter future together in Jasper.
Still, homesickness plagued him. “Oh Dolly I would give my months wages only to see you again,” he writes in his July 9 letter. On another occasion, he writes of his longing for her, “Dolly I am here for duty only now and nothing else and if I will not come back for a few years . . . or if I never will come back I shall die with your memory, for you have followed me for this long… Dolly you are closer than ever to me, for every day, I long for you more and more.”
Even as he traveled, first from Jasper to West Point, then overseas to France, Clement’s heart remained home in Jasper.
BY THE TIME Germany signed an armistice with the Allies and officially ended WWI on Nov. 11, 1918, the Great War had claimed the lives of 37 million worldwide. The United States suffered 350,000 casualties, 3,000 of which came from Indiana. Thirty-three men from Dubois County never got the chance to come home.
Solider 2899627 got lucky. He lived to return to his Dolly and “dear old Jasper” once again. Ironically it may have been typhoid fever, a scourge of the trenches, that saved him. While fighting overseas in France, Clement contracted typhoid and was sent home on February 4, 1919. He was then honorably discharged on February 20.
About a year later, he and Mary married in St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, the same church where Clement had been baptized. He inherited Berger’s Grocery from his father, and the couple settled into their new life together.
WHEN PHIL MATHIES AND HIS FAMILY found the love letters in their wall last spring, they never expected the nation-wide reaction they would receive. They were simply trying to build a new upstairs bathroom. Then, while re-wiring their storage room in preparation, their contractor pulled out Clement’s yellow crumpled sheets of paper.
The story of the letters discovery made news across the country. Clement and Mary’s love story re-emerged from the past in media from San Francisco to Washington, DC.
The Mathies’ discovery also helped reunite the letters with the couple’s family. Through the letters, Clement and Mary’s descendants caught a glimpse of what their relatives were like as young lovers. “You don’t picture your grandparents like that,” Lucinda says.
Still, she was happy to travel back in time and experience Clement and Mary’s love story firsthand through her grandfather’s 100-year-old letters.
AS THE YEARS PASSED FOR CLEMENT AND MARY, WWI faded into the background of their lives. Their family expanded to include two children, Robert and Ruth, and they raised them in Clement’s boyhood home above their grocery store. Robert went on to fight in World War II and later became a professional violinist who preformed at The French Lick Sheraton, though he continued living in Jasper and working in the grocery store. Ruth married, moved to Louisville and became a mother to five children.
Clement and Mary ran Berger’s Grocery like peanut butter and jelly: Each played the role that suited his or her personality best.
Clement was the social one, Lucinda says. He worked at the front of the store, managing the counter and cash register. Lucinda’s brother, Marty Priest, recalls his grandfather chatting and laughing with his customers. “I remember him sitting behind the counter, checking people out, the old guys coming in, buying their twisted tobacco, talking,” he says.
Clement’s position at the front of the store also helped him satisfy his sweet tooth, as the counter was conveniently positioned near the desserts. “He was up there by the candy, and he always ate the candy or the ice cream,” Lucinda says.
Mary was shy and more reserved around customers. She worked primarily in the back: stocking products, keeping the books and handling merchandise orders. Despite her backstage role, Mary was hardly a wallflower. Lucinda remembers that her grandmother also gave orders, both in the store and with her family. “She was a ‘take-charge’ kind of person … same as my mother and myself,” she says.
Mary valued close family ties, says the couple’s niece, Nancy Teder. “She was like a second mother to me.” Mary encouraged all the children to help her in the grocery store. She’d teach them to line up the canned goods so their names were fully visible. “She’d always say that ‘you can’t just have the ‘RN’ in corn showing,’” Nancy says. “To this day I still have to have my cans in my own pantry lined up so I can see the label.”
Clement did not speak of the war -- not to Mary, not to his children, not even to those children’s children. Mary didn’t press him. “She just let him be home,” Lucinda says.
The only acknowledged reminder of Clement’s WWI service sat on the mantle of the couple’s vacation home on the Whitewater River. “When I was a kid we had two WWI artillery shells that had been fired, one on each side of their fireplace,” Marty says. The shells book-ended a picture of George Washington. He remembers because as children, “our punishment was to go sit in the room with George when we were bad.”
Marty recalls Clement and Mary speaking German to their peers, but they never taught him the language. Perhaps the war tainted the older generation’s desire to share their native language, or perhaps they had other, less controversial reasons. “They always spoke German when they didn’t want us to hear something,” Marty says.
ALMOST 100 YEARS LATER, Almost 100 years later, the discovery of Clement’s letters last April also revived the old ghosts of WWI-era Jasper. No one knows for sure how the letters ended up in Phil Mathies’ attic wall at 210 Fourth Street, but the couple’s relatives have several theories.
Nancy wonders if the letters were purposefully left behind in the wall, as the couple had originally lived in that house before moving above the grocery store. She’d heard it was a tradition for newlyweds, she explains. “When they got married they used to hide something of meaning to them, and when they left the house they would leave it behind, to have good memories or to have luck and health in life.”
Lucinda and Marty were both shocked when the letters were found on April 17 last year. Lucinda was surprised at the extensive media coverage it generated. “It’s just your family, you know,” she says. “You might think it’s interesting, but you don’t think that everybody else would.”
Marty, on the other hand, was astonished at Clement’s romantic words. “I never envisioned my grandparents writing such big love letters,” he says. “They lived in a German community, so they weren’t really outwardly expressive. They weren’t always talking about love. You were just supposed to know.”
Lucinda has an easier time reconciling the passion in Clement’s letters with the relationship she witnessed growing up. Her grandparent’s romance may not have been silver-screen showy, she says, but “they definitely had a solid foundation love.” It was a love as real and unyielding as their weathered wood dining room table, which still sits in Lucinda’s house today.
Clement and Mary supported each other all their lives. When Clement suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed, Mary cared for him until his death a year later on July 15, 1972. Mary followed her husband twenty years later.
“He was her life,” Lucinda remembers. “They were each other’s lives.”
TODAY WWI SOLIDER 2899627 lies with his lifetime love under one headstone in Fairview Cemetery, watched over by the grand church steeple he used to pass each day.
His rest is peaceful, for he kept his long ago vow. He fought. He survived. And he returned home to his Dolly once more.
“Remember, where ever I am I am yours, and yours until my last.”