Memorial Day 2019 comes 100 years after the return of American soldiers from the battlefields of World War I, providing a fitting moment to focus on one Jackson County boy who did not return, William Elsie Dillard.
American Legion Post 104, which held its first meeting on Dec. 9, 1922, is named for Dillard. The group was organized largely by men who had served in the “Radio Company,” of which Dillard was a member. The Post was dormant for a number of years until a group of 50 WWI veterans gathered on Armistice Day (Nov. 11, now called Veterans Day) in 1939. It’s been going strong ever since.
By all accounts Dillard was an engaging and popular young man. A medical student, Dillard had worked at Hooper’s Drug Store in Sylva before becoming one of the first young men in the county to enlist for service in WWI. He was one of 87 men who departed Sylva for service on Aug. 18, 1917.
According to a report by the late J.D. McRorie, longtime Sylva Herald news editor, “The National Guard Radio Company became Company A, 105th Field Signal Battalion and while at Camp Sevier, being a medical student, Elsie Dillard transferred to the Medical Detachment of that Battalion, with which organization he sailed on May 27, 1918, to France. At the time of the operation of the Division in Belgium in July and August, Capt. John E. Ray, the Detachment commander of the 119th Infantry, and, at his own request Elsie Dillard, was transferred with the officer to whom he had become greatly attached. He served with the 119th during the Campaign of Picardy, which included the breaking of the Hindenburg Line at Bellicourt and the desperate battles following. Elsie was in the thick of the fight, and while he was never wounded, he contracted influenza, due to exposure in the field, and shortly after the battle of Montebrebain was evacuated to the British Hospital at Amiens where he succumbed a few days later.”
It’s worth noting that the worldwide flu outbreak that coincided with the waning months of WWI claimed far more lives than the war itself. The strain was different from usual varieties of flu in that influenza normally claims the elderly and the very young; the “Spanish flu” took down healthy young adults in astonishing numbers. This was in part because of how flu spreads where people gather, and vast numbers of young men were gathering at military bases for training. Postwar estimates said 36 percent of Army personnel had contracted the flu along with 40 percent of the Navy.
Dillard’s passing hit hard here. The young man was the topic of a number of articles in the Jackson County Journal, including this tribute signed only by “A FRIEND” published on May 9, 1919:
William Elsie Dillard is the only Sylva soldier who sleeps the sleep that knows no awakening on the battlefields of France. With true American self-abandon he gave to universal freedom the last full measure of devotion.
Young, handsome, pulsing with the consciousness of physical perfection, he went to war and assumed its spartan rights with the gay intrepidity of his cavalier race.
A member of the Medical Corps, he voluntarily exposed himself to the storm of battle and flirted with German death. Modest, suave and gentle as he was gallant, he fell at this post of duty the fair victim of disease. At his cot side, in his last battle, like many another hero, there was no relative, no childhood friend to sooth his fevered brow or cheer his passing. He met his pilot alone and face to face, and had a hero’s greeting.
In his grave in France he is not alone, for over that mound of earth the heart of his widowed mother will keep a tireless vigil. No man ever had but one true friend, and that friend was his mother…
But young Dillard did not die in vain. The grateful citizens of his native country will see to it that a special and fitting memorial in his hometown shall keep his memory green, along with every other mother’s boy who made the soldier’s sacrifice.
In our homes, on our streets, in places of business we shall miss our young friend’s pleasant greeting.
We shall share with his mother and brothers the human disappointment incident to the premature effacement of a promising career. But such is life and the fortune of war.
To an all-wise and overruling Providence let us humbly submit and live in hopes of that glorious future that awaits the final faithful.
Where he stands, the Arch Fear in a visible form,
Yet the strong young man must go:
For the journey is done and the summit attained,
And the barriers fall,
Though a battle’s to fight ere the guerdon be gained,
The reward of it all.”
The end of the tribute is an excerpt from the poem “Prospice,” written by Robert Browning shortly after the passing of his wife, Elizabeth, in 1861. While it’s almost a lost art these days, poetry was tremendously popular in the WWI era, and was often turned to as people struggled to make some sense of the battlefield carnage. Browning’s lament described the chill of facing death, and the guerdon, or reward, of reuniting with loved ones who had passed on before.
On June 6, 1919, the Journal printed comments delivered by James H. Cathey at M.E. Church South Sylva:
It is not with unmixed emotions that I approach the task assigned me in this program. I share in the profound sadness of all who realize that our young soldier is one of the immortal number of unreturning dead; and at the same time I experience a solemn satisfaction in adding my poor mite to the sum of praise which he so richly earned.
No one not occupying the position of mother, father, brother or sister can appreciate the poignant grief and loneliness of such a passing as that of our young hero.
Without solemn and deep reflection we shall fail to grasp the awful significance of death for any cause or under any circumstances. Our Savior himself dreaded death as is shown by his agony and prayer in Gethsemane.
Man has but one natural life. He passes this way but once. The tender ties, the familiar scenes of this beautiful world are his to cultivate and enjoy, and they become a part of his very life, his food and his drink. Ah, the appeal of life in the bounding tide of youth with all of its manifold and mysterious relations: The old home with her to preside who is dearer than all the world beside, the ancestral home with its hedges of boxwood and “white pigeons fluttering down;” the ancient oaks and smiling uplands, how it must tear the heart of youth to look upon these for the last time. Even the iron hearted Napoleon said he loved the very smell of the soil of his native Corsica.
Sometimes we speak in eloquent terms of the glory that attaches to the death of a hero for his country. Genuine vicarious sacrifice is glorious. “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friend.” It is equally glorious to die for the oppressed. The immortal Frenchman, Lafayette, headed a few unselfish patriots and nobly assisted Washington in delivering our colonies from the tyranny of German George third, but it remained for the Twentieth Century to behold a Christian nation of the first magnitude lay all of its fabulous resources, men, money and time, upon the altar of liberty in a foreign clime, across three thousand miles of sea. Never before had the human race gazed upon so singular and sublime a spectacle.
For the first time in history a united nation threw itself in the breach between the mailed fist and the spirit of liberty, that the latter might continue to live in the world, without thought of the immemorial rewards of conquest. No nation not Christian would have dared so momentous an adventure. Indeed you, soldiers, were actuated by the first law of life: self-preservation – the perpetuation of our free institutions from the thralldom of German military cult in full operation, but the motive that impelled you and your dead comrades whose gallant spirit we honor and revere today was the liberation of France and Belgium and the other oppressed peoples of Central Europe from the yoke of German oppression.
Yes, young Dillard died for an ideal and more, he died for a sublime principle – that men might live and that little children and defenseless women and helpless aged might be rescued from the nightmare of ultra-savage force and fiendishness. Soldiers, you offered your lives, and your comrade died, for the well-being of all future generations. Men living ten generations, aye, ten centuries from now will be as much your debtors as we who proudly look upon your manly forms today. Your task has been nobly performed. You have sown the seeds of liberty and enlightenment throughout the Eastern half of the world and the harvest may be indefinite, but is nonetheless sure. The sacrifice of your immortal dead – their rich, young lifeblood moistening an hundred ensanguined fields from the Argonne, to Mehiel, Metz and Verdun will perpetually ascend to our God, who is the final conservator and administrator of justice, righteousness and peace among nations, as among men.
Where is the American today who would wish a return to human slavery? Who among us, however wise or simple, would advocate a disruption of the Union of these States? Just so it is in Europe and the far east. From now henceforth there will be no place on earth, much less in the Sun, for an autocratic simpleton or tyrannical egoist like Nicholas Romanoff or William Hohenzoilern. They were the relic of a barbaric idea in government. They were not deluded. They were vicious and presumptive from ages of evil and false training. The world became sick and tired of all such and, through your sacrifice, has made good riddance of them.
And now soldiers, in the soldier-death of Elsie Dillard every one of us and every one of you are recommitted to the task of citizenship. Did it ever occur to you that it should be as glorious to live as to die for a just cause? Often it requires all the finest qualities of the best soldier to do right.
In fact, the men whom you have known in public or private life, who have been of the greatest value to mankind, have evinced the courage of the martyr when occasion called. That great apostle to the gentiles and prince among men, St. Paul, was always ready to be “offered up” for Him whom he served. Ah, the transcendent, all-inclusive place of service in the life! The real heroes are those like Garibaldi, Kossuth, Lincoln, Lee and our own great president, who exist in their physical bodies, but in reality, live out of themselves and for all humanity, for all time.
To briefly paraphrase Lincoln at Gettysburg: “It is for us, civilians and soldiers, to be here dedicated to the task remaining before us – that from our honored dead, we take increased devotion to the cause for which he gave the last full measure of devotion – that we here highly resolve that our young friend and comrade shall not have died in vain, and that all nations, under God, shall have new birth of freedom and that government of the people shall not perish from the earth.”
Soldiers, it grieves our hearts that the hale and happy form of Elsie is left to sleep in Flanders’ Fields where poppies blow, but like the young lover whose heart was in the highlands a-chasing the roe, our hearts are with our dead young lover of human rights as he awaits the blast of the hero’s reveille on some golden morning in God’s good time.
If the war had continued there would have been other gold stars on that white background. You would have been of all men the most fortunate. You have come back to your native land and to us almost as from the grave. You have come back, most of you, strong and hopeful and full of the joy of living. You come back home with something the Grecian, the Roman soldier with his chariot wheels laden with material and human trophies, never knew. You come back with the best physical and moral health of all the soldiers of history.
Your personal conduct, your conversation and intercourse mark you as sons worthy of chevalier sires. You have shown the world that a soldier can be a Christian and a gentleman. We are proud of you and feel reassured in the most live and liberal prophecy of a glorious citizenship among us. While you were suffering from cold and hunger, or on the field of battle we suffered with you, our hopes and prayers followed you by night and by day, and often sleep was stranger to us, but now we have you and we are happy. May you never again have to perform another such errand, but may you ascend the Eastern side of the hill of life in prosperity and go down the western slope in peace.
Memorial Day comes with one duty for the public: Remember.
“It’s important to remember,” Post 104 Commander Ed Harwood said, “because without all the sacrifices that the men and women made standing up for what this country believes in, we would not be able to celebrate Memorial Day.”
The William E. Dillard post will hold its Memorial Day Observance at the Sylva Memorial Fountain Monday at noon. The program is as follows:
Posting of Colors:
American Legion Post 104 Honor Guard
American Legion Post 104 Chaplin Burrus Jones
Pledge of Allegiance:
American Legion Post Commander Ed Harwood
National Anthem: Katie Hoyle
Welcome of Guests:
Post 104 Vice Commander Roy Burnette
American Legion Post 104 Commander Ed Harwood
Wreath Acceptance: Richard Wilson and Joe Hurt
Address: Tom Baker
Song: Katie Hoyle
Post Everlasting Ceremony:
American Legion Post 104
American Legion Post 104 Chaplin Burrus Jones
Retirement of Colors:
American Legion Post 104 Honor Guard