PRIVATE FRANK LAST (Transcribed by Rick Riehl)
"With the exception of the piece of shell in my abdomen, my left eardrum broken, my right ear stopped between the inner and outer ear, and my lungs not in the best of shape because of gas, I am alright."
Pvt. Frank J. Last survived his war experiences and, although 50% disabled as a result of being gassed and having a shell inoperably lodged in his abdomen, led a life of service to his country. He received the Silver Star, two Purple Hearts, and special commendations for extraordinary bravery while in captivity.
He joined the administration of the VA Hospital in Washington during the early 1920's and eventually retired as the vice president of the VA Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan in the early 60's. He passed away in 1976.
This original account was a combination of trench notes, and later memoirs that Pvt. Last compiled during his military convalescence in 1919. They sat in a drawer for three quarters of a century. Rick Riehl
The following day we were told to remain available so that we could be called at any time as we were expecting to move. That evening we were assured that we would leave the next morning. A couple of our boys were sick and had been moved from the Infirmary of the camp to the hospital.
The next morning we were lined up and after "forming fours" in the English fashion we started on our hike for the station again. We enjoyed our walk this trip. A new covering of snow lay over the ground, and there were several sleighs about; also a number of bells on each that seemed to make things merrier.
We boarded the train again and unloaded at the dock a short way from the ship. We had to pass the great old American ship to get to the English ship. The "gobs" sure cheered us as we passed which didn't seem to amaze the "linies" very much and they exchanged some rather rough remarks. As the two ships were docked close to each other several boxing matches, which were not in fun, had taken place. The English would say something about their bulldog navy and our boys would give them a fitting answer.
The American ship, as I have stated, was a new vessel while the English one had seen better days. We were more than wishing that we could get on the American ship instead of the "frogs" and go right home, but we weren't routed that way. We walked the gang plank and I must say that the interior of this ship was no more, if as much, inviting as the outside was. We were assigned to our compartments and tables, above which our hammocks were to be hung. We started out about four o'clock, with the American ship 20 minutes ahead of us. At first we remained on deck and checked for floating mines. We could see the American ship ahead of us blowing up mines once in a while. We counted 24 in a short while, one of which some of the boys of the Bulldog navy shot at 9 times but left unharmed. We Americans, or "yanks" as we were called did some laughing and joking about it, but as we were by far from being the majority we had to slow down to the speed limit. The North Sea was very rough, and the ship was tossed about like a cork. We hadn't been out very long when several became sea sick.
We hadn't gone a great deal farther when all were seasick and I was one of them. No question but I was sick. I would have given anything I had to have had a chance to stand on the top of a telephone post out in the water for a few minutes. We were being fed three meals a day on ship, but several of us didn't take part in this very often. We did our part in terms of feeding the fish oftener than we care to.
This trip lasted until December 20th. Early that morning we slowed up and finally anchored at "prisoners' island" off the coast of Scotland. At first it was very foggy, but toward noon we could see people walking about the island. I was pretty much back on my feet again as well as most of the other boys. The sea had become quite calm. We were anchored waiting for the tide. About noon we commenced to move again and about 1:30 or 2:00 p.m. we were being towed in by a small tug. The docks were lined with Scotch "Lassies and lads" all waving their handkerchiefs or a flag. Bands were playing and it was a real homecoming for some. As we got closer, some recognized people that they knew and things were more than exciting onboard ship as well on the deck. We finally tied up. We could see a great many anxious mothers, wives, and sisters looking for someone to return. Some were hoping to meet soldiers who had been reported "missing in action". There was a chance of his being onboard. Some had been taken prisoners, but a great many of them would never return. Whenever anyone saw someone they were looking for, there were tears of joy and a lot of unity because everybody understood their joy.
Several American Red Cross men and women were there to meet the Americans and we were taken care of without a doubt. Two men were allowed to get off, and after shaking our hands, they took our names and addresses, and promised to send telegrams to our parents of our safe arrival in Scotland. As we marched down the gangplank we couldn't help but notice the poor mothers on either side watching patiently for their sons. Some seemed to know it was no use, while others seemed to have hopes. All were shedding tears. We were an awful-looking sight. Our clothes were ragged. Some men were badly in need of shaves and haircuts. Several were in need of doctor's care. We were all in need of several good "feeds". The Red Cross got hold of us as we marched out and we were escorted to one corner of a large warehouse surrounded by the good old stars and stripes. We all shouted as we got near to them. We actually screamed for joy. No one could help it, even though some had tried to hold it back. We were told by the Red Cross people that they were at our service and would do anything for us that they could.
This was a very large warehouse and it was lined with long tables that were full of good things to eat, being supplied by some women's organization of England and Scotland. We ate all we could, but just then we weren't so hungry, having had our fill several times in the past week. We were soon back to the Red Cross corner; and some of the boys got clean clothes while others of us waited until we could get a bath and clean up for good. Our pet cooties were still with us. What would we do for pass time when they were to leave us? At any rate we were not worrying about them at that time. We received plenty of eats, candy, smokes, and toilet articles, etc, not forgetting a small silk U.S. Flag, which we each wore in a place so that it would show up well.
Some of the boys who were in need of medicine treatments at once were taken away and sent to a hospital. The rest of us were marched out and onto a train. We were told we were going to Ripon, England. This place was Firth of Forth, Scotland. The Scotch bands lost no time furnishing some very fine music from the time we landed until the time we left.
About 9 o'clock that evening we were unloaded again and reloaded into trucks and taken to the largest camp in England at Ripon. After signing several papers, we were given our supper and then retired.
The next morning we were again lined up and told what we were to get that day. First a bath, and then clean clothes, or have our current ones "Decooterized" (fumigated). This all happened in the forenoon. That afternoon we were moved into other barracks that were shorter and were classed according to our physical conditions.
The Red Cross man met us again and we were to more smokes, chocolate, etc, and anything else we might need. After receiving ten shillings each, we were told we would leave the following morning for London, and the Red Cross at London was being wired to meet us.
That night was New Years Eve. We were all very happy; everything was coming our way; every move was a step closer to home. The following a.m. (New Years Day), we were all up bright and early. After feeding our faces for the last time at this camp we lined up again and were marched to the station to be moved again. As so many of the tommies were going also, the train was very crowded. There were 19 of us crowded in a small compartment which should have only had half that many.
About six o'clock that evening, the train pulled into London. The American Red Cross man was on the job. He met us and marched us over to a large bus. It was raining quite hard and, as the bus was crowded , some of us had to sit on top (The bus being a double-decker) and I for one was slightly dampened! The bus wound its way down the busy crooked streets of London and after a half hour ride or so we arrived at the Red Cross headquarters. We surely received a warm reception here. I could not say that we sat down to a lunch or even a dinner; it was a real banquet.
Some of the boys went on sick call, which delayed our trip for a little while. We later found out that these same fellows were expecting to get to the U.S. ahead of us by "playing sick". About 9:30 we started out on our sight seeing trip. We got into one of the other double deck auto buses and were on our way to get a little idea of London. The air was very snappy, although clear. The first place of importance pointed out to us was the King's stables. We were told by the Red Cross representative that one evening when there were quite a number of U.S. soldiers in London, and they could not get sleeping quarters, they were given the privilege of sleeping in the King's Stables, through the Red Cross. I say privilege - we were further told that no English Soldiers or any others had even had the chance to sleep there. Beds and plenty of bed clothing were found and put into the stables. No question but those who slept there were comfortable and felt quite honored.
These stables were by no means small or cheap looking, and I am safe in saying, that I believe that they would be a fit place for anyone to sleep in, that is those parts not occupied by animals. It might have been an awful thing that some of the boys left a "cootie" or two for one of the King's favorite horses!
We then passed the King's palace and some palace it was. We went around as close as we could in this car as different entrances, rooms, etc, were pointed out to us and we were told things about them.
Our next sight was the Queen Victoria Statue, across the street in a sort of triangle. We were told that this statue had been unveiled by Kaiser Wilhelm. We were then unloaded and lined up before the statue and had our photographs taken with the statue in the background.
We started out again and went down a street that was lined on either side with captured German Artillery that was on exhibition, and some of it was pretty badly banged up. There were several Aero Planes as well.
We passed under the much heard of Marble Arch and after another drive stopped at Temple Church. This is a very noted place too - as well as large. The church in itself is not so large, but there are so many halls and other rooms connected with it. The church was built of slabs of stone roof and all was built round. This was constructed in A.D. 1093. In a few hundred years an addition was added. As we entered the church we saw images of men lying about the floor. Under each of these images a man was buried and the image was a likeness of him. According to their deeds they were distinguished. Some had their legs crossed below the knee, some straight, some crossed above the knee. Each meant a different "something" which I have already forgotten. We were shown so many things and told so much in so short a time, that it was rather hard to remember all. Our guide, the Red Cross man, was well posted - this being far from his first trip. We were shown Oliver Goldsmith's grave in the courtyard. From here we went to the "Old Curiosity Shop" founded by Dickens. When we came to this, the driver was stopped and we were told that we would value any small souvenirs that we could get here. We all started to get off the bus but the Red Cross man stopped us and informed us that only a couple could go in at a time. The building looked large and we couldn't imagine why. When we got in we found out. It was actually very small. There were two clerks in the place; an old lady, and a younger one. About three customers filled the place up pretty well. There were different articles lying about, but all were rather expensive. As there was a limit to our cash, the ten schillings we had received at Ripon, we all bought a couple packs of postcards and again entered the bus.
Our next stop was at a dock. We marched a little ways and boarded the submarine U-155, formerly known as "Deutschland". We were taken through the submarine by English sailor guides, and each part and compartment was explained to us. We were shown how each part worked. The Deck heads (ceilings) were very low and it was most impossible for a man to stand up straight. We were shown where the dyes were stored when they were brought to America when the Deutschland was new. We also saw the torpedo tubes and the 5 and 9 inch guns. We each peeped through the periscope. After we had been on this ship for some time and all had been pretty well explained to us, we again boarded the bus and were taken to the "Tower of London".
We were let into a small building where we received a pass and guide to the Tower for one penny in English money, or two cents in U.S. money. It would take pages to describe this tower as there was so much to see. I will give only a brief description of it. This tower is actually composed of several towers, all of which are enclosed in stone fences or buildings. The towers are also of stone. There are four very large towers which might be compared to silos in our country, only larger. These have several "portholes" which in case of an attack on the city, would be used to fire from. The walls have a great many portholes as well.
The first thing we saw after entering was "prisoner's gate". This was a gate where prisoners were put for punishment. We could see water and several steps of stone and imagine the rest.
Next we saw the gate of the "bloody Tower" and the large gate. This gate has only been down once and is lowered and raised by a windlass, it weighing over a ton. In case the enemy coming it is lowered. The bars are of iron and are pointed at the bottom so as to pierce anyone who might be under them when it went down. As I have said, this tower of London is composed of several towers as follows: "The Middle Tower", "The Byward Tower", " The Bell Tower", "The Bloody Tower", "Wakefield Tower", " The Traitor's Gate", and " The Crown Jewels". Of the above mentioned, The Crown Jewels seemed the most wonderful. There are any amount of rubies, diamonds, and other jewels. A certain crown there, after it had been lightened for Edward VII, still contained 2,818 diamonds, 297 Pearls besides many other jewels. Later on, the same crown was altered for a queen and two sapphires, 56 brilliants, and 52 Rose diamonds were added. This is only one crown of hundreds of crowns, staffs, trumpets, bowls, etc. A salt of state, made in the 17th century has a cost of over 3,000 in English money or approximately 15,000 in U.S. money. Without question those jewels are guarded.
We were also taken into the armories and shown hundreds of different kinds of arms, armors, shields, and everything imaginable for use in a war. Some of it looked as though it had seen pretty rough use at that. All was very interesting
We were later shown Sir Walter Raleigh's former prison cell in which he wrote the "History of the World". He had spent about twelve years of his life at this place and undoubtedly knew every crevise in it. His cell was not very large, but he also had a walk. This was a longer but very narrow place between stone walls, but he could get light there at least.
We were shown the axe and block finally used to behead him. The axe was very wide at the bottom, running to a peak at the top. It was rounded with a short handle. The block was a large square affair with a curved hollowed out at the top to fit the neck of the victim. This block showed several cuts or marks where the axe had struck. We were told that if a man's crime was not very great his head was taken off with one blow or as close to that as possible. If he committed a serious crime several cuts were made, allowing him to suffer so much longer. We were also shown into St. John's chapel, the parade grounds, and several other places.
From the Tower of London, we went to Westminster Abbey. We could see that this was a wonderful place from the outside. We passed through two large iron doors and were in the church. Here we could see any amount a tombs of many well read of people. These were interesting but rather "creepy". We also saw the poets "corner" with busts of a number of well known poets, plus the coronation chair with all the flags of the allies in front of it; the confessor's alter and shrine. The whole thing was most wonderful. We also saw many beautiful windows and a number of other things too numerous to mention.
We were next taken to the House of Parliament, but didn't go in as we were becoming quite tired. We were shown "Leicester Square", "Hyde Park", "St. Paul's Cathedral", " Roman Catholic Church", "Piccadilly Corner" and several other places. All were very wonderful and interesting. Some time that afternoon we returned and had luncheon and then were told that we could have the rest of the afternoon to use as we wish.
We went out for a walk and had not gone far when we saw a U.S. quartermaster's office. We at once thought of money, as we were pretty well stripped, having spent the little we had on card and folders of what we had seen that morning. We went up a flight of stairs and knocked at a door. We were admitted and explained our troubles and needs. The captain promised us some money, but we were to return later. In the mean time they would try to find record of us.
We went back at the time they told us and they had found nothing, but after asking advice from some other officer over the telephone we received 2 pounds, some shillings, and a few pennies in English money, or about 11 dollars each in real money. This took us until almost evening. We had another feed on the Red Cross and started out to go to a show. Every theatre we went to was "booked up" for the evening and they were reserving seats for two weeks to come. It was impossible to even get into a cheap movie. After several attempts we gave it up as a bad job and started to the "Eagle Hut" (YMCA). This place was very much crowded, a cafeteria being the main attraction. There was also some sort of concert on, but we couldn't get anywhere near the hall. We then took a bus ride and saw some of London by electric lights, winding up at our headquarters at about10:30 p.m. We sat around in the lobby and talked until after midnight and then retired. We had a good sleep that night owing to not having had much sleep the night before, and our sight seeing trip.
The next morning we woke quite refreshed, and found ourselves back at the station ready to board the train for Winchester. We arrived there at about 1:00 that afternoon. No one was there to meet us except the MPs who demanded a pass. We had none, and after we had all explained how we happened to be there, we were allowed to pass through the gates and were told to go to a camp a couple of miles out of Winchester-"Mourn Hill" camp. "Mo(urn) Hill" would have been a better name. This was the same camp that I first "Hit" in England a year before and I needed no explanation of the place, although it was far superior to the German Prison.
We arrived a little late for dinner at the camp and after we had signed a number of papers and had answered several more questions (besides a lot of other unnecessary red tape), we were assigned to our barracks, but were offered no dinner. We soon inquired for some and were told that we would have to wait until suppertime. We were hungry, not having had anything to eat since early that morning, and as long as we were where there were eats we were entitled to them; we were going to do our best in trying to get them. So we made an effort through a captain and got some cold lunch from some cooks who were none too pleasant about having to give it to us.
After we had finished this lunch we went back to our barracks and commenced to straighten around our bunks for the night and such time as we would be there. We had gotten just nicely started when someone opened the door and yelled, "outside for detail". We tried to explain our case to him but he, being one of some of the important non-coms, could not listen to anything. So out we went to perform our duties, which included carrying blankets rolled up 8 to a roll. This job lasted about an hour and we went back to finish settling ourselves when the same fellow yelled out for another detail. We had several non-coms among us but they didn't rank any higher than "buck privates" with these important "SOS" fellows.
I am not knocking any non-coms or SOS as both were necessary, but there was a detachment left at this camp to do this work and the majority of these fellows were taking life easy, promenading around in taylor-made uniforms enjoying themselves. They were well acquainted in Winchester and they could easily shift their work or duties on to the rookies who were coming back from the lines, all of whom had been wounded or were in poor health otherwise.
Our second detail didn't last quite as long as the first one and when we got through with it a sergeant, who was in our bunch and myself took a fine notion to call on the nearest YMCA, so as to get out of any more details which might spring up.
We bought a few cookies and cup of hot chocolate and didn't go back for supper. We learned of a movie that evening and took it in.
When we got back to our barracks we found that we had missed some detail. Only a couple of the boys had stayed there and they were excused as there were not enough men in that barrack. So the important sergeant went somewhere else for his detail. We enjoyed the movie, being the first one we had seen in several months.
We heard a number of rumors at this place. Some were that we would be classified and according to the way we were classed would either go to the states or to France to rejoin our former companies.
We retired for the night to beds or bunks on the floor, which were no means as soft as the Red Cross beds which we had had a few nights previous. The next morning after we had had our breakfast I commenced to shave. Before I got a good start, along comes that same important sergeant and yells, "Outside". Our work was to carry a pile of lumber from an old YMCA hut which had been torn down. We worked until noon and then had dinner. We hadn't sat around very long when we were again called outside. This time our work was to polish in some officers' reading and resting room. They were going to have a dance that evening and we were to have the pleasure of polishing the floor for them - on our hands and knees. We made quite a fuss about this and said a great many things that I won't take time and space to write. This "important" friend of ours promised that we would be through the day after this job, so we hurried along. We had not been back to our barracks very long when he yelled "outside" again. This time we all kicked, stating that we were informed that we were at this place as convalescents and were to rest. He rather listened to us a little and then made another promise. He stated that he felt sorry for us, but that the work had to be done and that if we did this we would surely be through for the day. This was another big job and when we finished it, it was chow time, so the sergeant kept his promise.
The following day being Sunday, we were not ordered out. The next day we were examined and I was classed "C2" which meant U.S. for me. Two of the boys went back to their companies in France. We were then moved into another barracks, where all "C2s" were and we didn't have any more detail to do. We received a new issue of clothes and were told that we would be going home as soon as we could get transportation.
After a couple weeks of inspection and laying about we received word that we were going to leave and at noon on Jan. 21 we boarded a train and arrived at South Hampton about an hour later. We then boarded the USS Plattsburg and some time that night we began to move. The Plattsburg was not near as fine a ship as the one I went across in (the Leviathian) but I was glad to be aboard it on my way home. Harry K. had taken his honeymoon trip on this boat, so we all felt quite honored at this, as we were only soldiers. We were by no means downhearted when we could hear the propellers commence to work. The next morning we were anchored for a while and after day light we moved again. The sea was quite rough and several of the boys were seasick. The following day we were anchored a short distance from Brest, France where a Battallion of the 38th division were brought to our ship by smaller boats. After they were loaded we pulled out of the harbor and were again on our way. The ocean was quite rough most of the way but I had pretty good luck this trip and didn't get sick, although I was one of only a few who weren't. The North Sea had cured me.
About noon of Jan. 30 we pulled into the New York Harbor and anchored. After waiting there for most of the afternoon our ship was examined by medical men and we were permitted to go in. We reached dock just at dusk and were told that we would have to stay aboard until daylight. Most of the boys had sent a telegram or letters or both, and although we would rather have been ashore, none of us were kicking any.
About 10 o'clock the following day we marched ashore and after being treated to some coffee and some sandwiches by the Red Cross we got onto a ferry boat and went up the Hudson. Next we boarded a train and our stop was Camp Merritt. I had also been at this camp before and felt pretty good, as I knew it was a good one. We had the usual bath, examination, and our clothes redecootierized for the steenth time and another bunch of questions asked. We had been divided up into companies according to what state we were from and told that as soon as we got transportation we would move.
About noon of Feb.11, we boarded the NY Central and were soon on our way to Camp Dodge, Iowa. After riding the 8-40 specials (8 horses or 40 people) in France, these Pullmans were some treat. The Red Cross fed and greeted us all along the road. We passed through Buffalo that night. I saw my first snow that winter in Canada on that following morning but didn't see much of it. When we got as far as Detroit the snow was gone. That evening we arrived in Chicago and the following morning into Camp Dodge.
We were at once told to stick around so that we could be called at any minute to have our particulars taken and we would lose no time in getting our discharge. We had gone through our final examinations (discharges all made out for Feb.18) and were sitting around until next morning to be discharged when my name, along with two others, was called off to report at the Orderly's room. We were told to pack our things and get ready to go to the Hase Hospital. This sure cut the heart out of us. Our discharge all signed up, railroad tickets ready and only a few hours ahead of us and then to have it all called off. The three of us went with our heads hanging pretty low, we got into an ambulance and arrived at the hospital in a few minutes. We were put into different wards according to the nature of our wounds or ailments.
I reported for another examination the following morning and was told to return that afternoon for an x-ray exam. Two pictures were taken. A couple days later I returned again. The piece of high explosive shell which had entered my hip had lodged in my abdomen among the intestines.
I was given the promise of a furlough before an examination, but didn't receive it until March 22. During this time my ears were being examined and pronounced chronic. The eats were very good at this place and nothing to do but lay about and go for treatment at times requested, but the waiting to get home! I had not received any mail for 9 months and this helped to make me all the more anxious to get my furlough.
After my furlough was completed I returned to the hospital for my operation. I was sitting in the waiting room just outside the operating room. The major doctor came out. I sat there waiting and was just a bit "shaky", as I have been told that they were going to make a 6 inch cut and take my intestines out to remove the piece of shell. He placed his hand upon my shoulder saying, "young man, in looking over your x-ray examination and discussing your case, I've decided to discharge you and let you go; any time you are bothered you are to return at once." Cutting around those nerves, he said, might cause parts of my body to be paralyzed. Also, sooner or later an ahaquea would form, even if the place didn't bother me anyways. He told me not to do any work and not to get too much exercise of any kind, nor walk very much and I might be all right for a long time. He then gave me a letter to the S.C.D. board and wished me luck and I walked just about as fast as I knew how to the orderly room to get my name down for discharge. A few days later - May 1 - I boarded the train again; this time as a civilian. With the exception of the piece of shell in my abdomen, my left eardrum broken, my right ear stopped between the inner and outer ear, and my lungs not in the best of shape because of gas, I am alright. My lungs bother me during the summer months on damp hot days. The piece of shell gives me hard sharp pains at different times whenever it seems to move against a nerve or some other organ of the body. I am not complaining, however, and consider myself, as well as all others that got back, lucky. Of all the different countries I saw, the good old U.S. suites me. I saw my old buddy Kelly the other day at Aberdeen. We had not seen each other since we were separated on the battlefield at Soissons.
"FINI LA GUERRE"
For a direct link to the author of this article, click here to email Rick Riehl
Copyright © Chris Rick Riehl, May, 1997.
Return to the Hellfire Corner Contents Section