Letters Brought Joy and Sadness to Whiting in World War One

 John Hmurovic

August 2018

American soldiers in the trenches during World War One.

Letters were an incredibly slow way to get news from a loved one who was far away. But 100 years ago, it was all they had. There was no e-mail; no texting; telephones were not yet an option for most people. For those with loved ones in Europe fighting in the World War in 1918, the arrival of a letter could be a moment filled with anxiety. Was your son, husband, or brother just keeping in touch, or were you receiving bad news about an injury or something even worse?    

The news could hardly be worse for Susie Bugley of Davidson Place in Whiting when she picked up her mail one day in August 1918. The letter she received was from the U.S. War Department. Her son, Julius Funchik, the letter said, was missing in action. The 25-year-old Private had only been overseas for two months when his infantry unit took part in the Battle of Soissons in the World War. But there was no sign of him when the fighting quieted down. Mrs. Bugley knew nothing more. Her mind led her to believe the worst about her son’s fate.

Then, a week after being told he was missing, another letter arrived. This one was from an Army base hospital in France. It was from her son. Julius was not dead, he was not a German prisoner of war. He was safe and still alive in a hospital.

Private Funchik was on the exploding end of a hand grenade. Both feet and his right arm were badly injured, and his left ear drum was broken. The Army had no record of him from August 11, 1918, the date he was injured, until August 18, when he was reported to be in the hospital.

Because of his injuries, Julius needed help writing the letter to his mother. By coincidence, the person who helped him was also from Whiting. Walter H. Smith, the son of Whiting banker Fred J. Smith, oversaw the hospital ward where Private Funchik was taken. Walter’s brother, Lawrence Smith, a Whiting attorney, was also at the hospital. “My brother and I are glad he came here,” Walter Smith wrote, “because he is the first Whiting soldier we have seen.”

Julius Funchik was also happy to see them. “They have brought me all the news from Whiting which they have heard,” he wrote. For a Whiting soldier in a hospital in France, seeing someone else from his hometown must have given him comfort. In those days, news from home was rare for American soldiers in Europe. It only came from letters. Soldiers waited for letters, and they wrote letters home.

Albert Gavit

One of the most prolific letter writers from Whiting was Albert Gavit, son of attorney and Indiana State Senator Frank Gavit. The younger Gavit was assigned to be an ambulance driver on the French-Verdun front, where he saw firsthand the horrors of war,

“I carried men,” he wrote, “whom the priest administered the last rites to before I started down with them. Not a very pleasant feeling, that of not knowing whether you are driving a hearse or an ambulance on your runs from the poste down to the hospital.”

But Gavit also expressed basic human empathy in his letters from the front, even toward the enemy. On one occasion he had to transport in his ambulance a German prisoner and the American soldier who had been escorting him when both got injured by an exploding shell. “Although I fought the feeling as I looked at the Boche while I adjusted his blanket,” he wrote, using the American soldier’s nickname for the Germans, “my hate for him softened. After all, he wasn’t so unlike the man who lay next to him. He was on the wrong side, but perhaps he thought he was right.” 

 Like the month of July, August of 1918 saw more Whiting families receive letters telling them of their sons’ injuries. But unlike July, no one from Whiting-Robertsdale died in the war during the month of August. Besides Julius Funchik, two others were injured badly enough to eventually be awarded the Purple Heart. Both were injured by shrapnel at Chateau-Thierry. Ray Rushing didn’t live in Whiting at the outbreak of the war but moved here in 1923. Shrapnel ripped into his left leg.  Louis Fischer was a 1914 graduate of Whiting High School. He was hit by shrapnel in his right hip, back and abdomen.

Dickson Woodward

Dickson Woodward was also injured in action. Just days earlier, he won praise from his commanders and other soldiers for his heroics in battle. His combat record was so impressive that three countries awarded him their highest military honors.

Before the war, Dickson worked at the Standard Oil refinery in Whiting. The day after the United States declared war he went to Chicago and enlisted as a private in the infantry. His younger brother, Mark Woodward, followed his example a year later.

Both Dickson and Mark Woodward served in the same company, but in different platoons. In early August 1918, the entire company hurriedly marched 25 miles without food and water in order to get into position at Chipilly Ridge, France. On August 9-10, 1918, they were pressed into combat. During the battle, rumors reached Dickson’s platoon that the entire fourth platoon of their company had been wiped out. That was the platoon in which Mark served.

Dickson went into a rage. According to a newspaper report he “fought like a madman, bayonetting the enemy right and left, and never ceasing so long as one remained within reach.” At a critical period in the battle he volunteered to deliver messages to other American units on either side of his unit’s position, disregarding the risk. By doing so, he was able to create a channel of communication that helped his fellow soldiers reach their objectives. When he was later awarded the Silver Star by U.S. General John J. Pershing, Dickson was cited for his skill and bravery, and was given credit for inspiring the men around him and lifting their spirits.

Later, he was also awarded the Croix De Guerre by Belgium, and the Victoria Cross by Great Britain, the first soldier from Lake County to ever receive that honor.

Two days later, his regiment was again in combat. Dickson was injured and had to be carried off the battlefield and taken to a hospital. In the meantime, he was able to get more details about his brother’s fourth platoon. The rumor was true, the entire fourth platoon was killed in combat. However, Mark Woodward had taken ill before the battle began and was left behind by his platoon. Mark had survived. However, two months later, Marie Woodward received at her home on 118th Street and Sheridan Avenue, a letter she never wanted to see. Her son, Mark Woodward died in combat, just one month before the war came to an end.