Friday, August 14, 2020

A Hint Uncovers WWI Military Foreign Deployment

I first learned of my great-grandfather Samuel Kirk's service with the U.S. Army during World War I when I visited his grave in 2016 and saw his government-issued headstone. It was literally carved in stone [see Finding WWI Military Service Despite National Archives Fire].

The author at Samuel Kirk's headstone, denoting his service during WWI

An article in the Colorado Transcript, a local newspaper for Golden, Colorado, publicly announced that Samuel - along with other drafted men - had been medically cleared for service in February 1918, and the Denver Public Library found him on a list of soldiers from Colorado that linked his service with the Motor Transport Corps.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs
Division, WWI Posters, Public Domai

On Memorial Day in 2016, I received a package of photos from a Kirk cousin that shed further light on Samuel's military service. The four pictures confirmed that he had been stationed in San Francisco, California.

Sadly, a 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri, destroyed between 16 and 18 million military personnel files, including Samuel's service records.

My request to the National Archives for his service file was returned with an ask to me to help them rebuild his file with what little information I knew. But that was it. That was everything I knew.

Until this week.

Turning Over a New Research Leaf

The research trail - once gone cold - reignited when a new shaky leaf hint popped up for Samuel on To my surprise and relief, it wasn't a user added photo of a strand of DNA or circuitous clue back to my own tree. This was something useful that would advance my research and understanding of his military service.

Samuel was enumerated on a list of men sailing from New York City to Liverpool, England. Sailing on the S.S. Anchises, the men boarded the ship on August 31, 1918 at Pier 58 North River in New York, NY.

Irma and Paul Milstein Division of United States History, Local History and Genealogy,
The New York Public Library. "Pier 58, North River. View from Street"
The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1951.

At 8:00 am on September 1, 1918, the ship departed New York and crossed the Atlantic in twelve days, arriving in Liverpool on September 13th.

S.S. Anchises, Wreck Site

Samuel was headed overseas!

Previously I had mistakenly assumed that his service was stateside simply because I had no evidence of foreign deployment. Now I had proof that he was headed to the action in Europe.

Furthermore, the passenger list (pictured below) included important details about Samuel's service, such as his service ID number and his specific unit affiliations. He was a Private First Class with Truck Company E of the Army Artillery Park, Coast Artillery Corps. That information would be helpful in following his service in Europe.

What happened once Samuel arrived in Liverpool? Did he stay in England or transfer to the continent? An answer came on another passenger list.

Seven months after he arrived in Europe, Samuel was enumerated as a passenger on the U.S.S. Canonicus headed for Brooklyn, New York. On April 19, 1919, he departed France from the U.S. Naval Air Station at Pauillac about 30 miles northwest of Bordeaux. U.S., WWI Troop Transport Ships, 1918-1919 [database on-line].
Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2017.

From the ashes - Establishing A Military Service Timeline

Despite the fiery destruction of Samuel's service records, the few documents I've scrounged up - including some fantastic online histories and first person recollections for the military company (quoted below) with which he enlisted - helped me piece together a timeline for his military service.


  • February 14, 1918: Sam passed medical review for draft, published in newspaper
  • March 1, 1918: The Army Artillery Park, First Army, American Expeditionary Force was organized at Ft. Winfield Scott in San Francisco and commanded by Colonel William H. Tobin.
  • 1918: Pictured in San Francisco area, perhaps during basic training
Samuel Kirk, photographed at the Presidio in San Francisco, California
  • August 15, 1918: Truck Company E left San Francisco in a vehicle convoy
  • August 21, 1918: Truck Company E arrived in New York City
  • August 31, 1918: Boarded the S.S. Anchises at Pier 58 in New York City
  • September 1, 1918: Set sail aboard S.S. Anchises
  • September 12, 1918: Arrived Liverpool, England
  • April ~13, 1919: Truck Company E met up with Park Battery C and Truck Companies D and F, in compliance with orders received to start for the Port of Embarkation.
  • April 16, 1919: Companies started for the river docks at 6:45 am. Arriving there, they took a barge for 30-miles down the river, landing at Pauillac. Here they were stationed in a large building, capable of holding 5,000 men.
  • April 18, 1919: "To the great surprise of all, saw an order come in that we should board our long-looked-for transport the next day.
  • April 19, 1919: "Sure enough, April 19 saw us lining up to await our turn to go aboard. The ship was loaded by 3:00 pm, and by 4:30 we started to pull away from land and out towards the middle of the river. We were on the good ship SS Canonicus, which had a tonnage of 5,500, and was 410-feet long with a 49-foot beam. The southern route of 3,700 miles was taken, and by the next morning land had faded away."
  • May 2, 1919: "The trip was uneventful, and May 2nd saw the ship feeling her way into New York harbour through the dense fog. After going through the usual quarantine inspections, we landed at 11:00 am. After a Red Cross dinner at the docks, we boarded the ferry and were taken up East River, under the Brooklyn Bridge, and at a pier in Brooklyn. Camp Mills was reached at 3:00 pm."
  • May 1919: "At Camp Mills, we were located in tents, and were allowed passes every two days. We anxiously awaited the day of our demobilization, which at last arrived. The Regulars were the first to depart, leaving on May 10th. That was the start, and from then on, the regiment, composed of men from almost every state in the Union, and from every walk of life, gradually fell to pieces. May 11th saw the Camp Grant detachment on its way, while the largest of all, the California detachment, left on May 12, 1919, with Camp Dodge departing on the 13th. While sorry to part from so many friends, many of whom we would never see again, still we were glad to get home and be free once more-and fulfilling the ambition we had cherished for five and a half months. Thus, came the end of one of Uncle Sam's many organizations, which, having done its duty, went out in the same way as it had come into existence, and with the same spirit of "Come what may, we are ready."
While the two passenger lists provide a great bookend to his foreign deployment, there remains a significant gap regarding what his Truck Company was doing from their arrival in Liverpool in August 1918 until the Armistice on November 11, 1918.

Persisting Questions and Freedom to Ask

I've reached out to the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri to see whether they can provide any further insights about the service of his company. Perhaps they will have details about battles Samuel would have supported.

I've also submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to see what, if any, records they have for Samuel that can be released to me. He spent his final years in a veterans home, so I anticipate there are, at a minimum, medical records.

Have you had experience with FOIA requests to the VA? Were you successful? How long did it take (assuming in a pre-pandemic era)? Fingers crossed there's more to be learned about Samuel's service.


  1. At the National Personnel Records Center (the NARA branch in St. Louis), are microfilms of Morning Reports. You will have to either go in person (with an appointment) or hire someone to view them. I got the morning reports for my great-uncle who was with the 8th Engineers Co E, who I also found on those passenger lists. My guy was only mentioned once, but I could follow the unit across France and Germany until their return. for more info. There are also unit records at NARA-College Park, but I have not explored those yet.

    1. Thank you for bringing the morning reports to my attention, Lisa. I wasn't familiar with them. They sound like they'd help me fill in the gaps in Sam's service (if not by name then at least by his unit). They sound like a great record set worthy of digitizing (would have been an important undertaking on the centennial of the war's end).

      It sounds like the research rooms are still closed to the public, but I've reached out to a researcher in the area to price out support once access resumes.

  2. I enjoyed reading this post, Michael. I especially liked the first person recollections.

    Nearly 20 years ago, my Dad's cousin gave me permission to share his WWII Exploits. Over the years, several people have contacted me saying how helpful the piece was for them. As I read your post, I realized they must have been in search for information like you.

    Good luck with your requests to the VA.

    1. I loved the first person recollections, too, although the site I quoted from doesn't do a great job of citing who exactly they belong to. I emailed the site's caretaker to learn more, but received a note that he passed away earlier this year.

      Writing about your Dad's cousin's WWII exploits underscores the importance of blogging, too. Get the information out there. Maybe you help someone learn something or - better yet - maybe they help *you* learn something.

      Fingers crossed for the VA!

  3. I also was thrilled to fill in some gaps in my grandfather's WWI experience when Ancestry posted the shipping lists from that time. He and his brother-in-law had pocket diaries but only a few scattered entries.

    1. I don't know how I missed the shipping lists until now, but better late than never! Was your grandfather's military file also destroyed in the fire?

      The pocket diaries must be a nice addendum to personalize the surviving records.

  4. I am so glad you were able to piece together his military service from all these disparate sources. Those quotations really had some flesh to the barebones of the dates. I wonder why this shaky leaf only showed up now. Is it a new database or new addition to the database?

    1. I'm not sure why the shaky leaf only recently showed up. It looks like the record set had been on Ancestry for several years. Perhaps it was only recently indexed.

      Curiously, the hint was only to the passenger ship departing NYC for Liverpool. I had to conduct a targeted keyword search to find Samuel's return voyage from France.

  5. What a great find. You never know when a clue is going to crack open a wall and information will come tumbling out. As for your FOIA request, don't be surprised if it takes a long tie for an answer. I did some work 2-3 years ago for a client and made a number of FOIA requests. Several answers came within days or weeks. However, in the past month, I've gotten one emailed response with documents attached and one letter sent by U.S. mail. Both are to requests made at least back in 2018.

    1. Given the USG's delayed responses - in the best of times (non pandemic) - I'm bracing myself for information many months from now. I suppose part II to this blog will be coming in 2021... Stay tuned!

  6. Like Lisa I got 2 years of morning reports for Daddy in WW11 for his 470th Amphibious Truck Unit. In the early days. It would take 6 or 9 months for me to get snail mail from NARA. After all that I ended up with a "Final Pay Voucher". Eventually I went to the Alabama Dept of Archives & History in Alabama and got his Official DD214 Stamped and Notary sealed by them. I went by his army patches he left behind and his uniform in photos that matched up. A lot of Oral History interviews. His unit is hard to find but I keep looking. It was by fluke the hired retriever remembered I mentioned it, she had done previous work for me on Station Lists for him. He was afterall a Colored Troop. I'm shocked there are bits and pieces to be found. Thankfully what he left behind was more than I would get from ordering or online researching. Great piece. I see where you get all the thick and curly hair from.

    1. Next step for me are those morning reports! How fortunate to have the important clues from your father (and oral histories!) to guide your search, True. Kudos to the hired retriever for remembering your research, too. It really does take a community, doesn't it?

  7. "To my surprise and relief, it wasn't a user added photo of a strand of DNA or circuitous clue back to my own tree." The best!