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Joseph Thomas Hughes

Submitted by: Gerald Hathaway (Grandson}

Joseph Hughes image

Joseph Thomas Hughes born around 1895. Joseph Hughes served in World War 1 with the United States Army. The enlistment was in 1917 and the service was completed in 1919.

Story of Service


Joseph Thomas Hughes (1895 - 1933)

By Gerald Hathaway, October 9, 2018

It was a hundred years ago today, or maybe tomorrow, that Pvt. Joseph Thomas Hughes was wounded in action, in France. If today is that anniversary, the casualty was incurred while attacking the Germans for control of Hill 269 in the Meuse-Argonne, 80 kilometers east of Reims, not far from the Belgian and Luxembourg borders. If the hundredth anniversary of his wound is instead tomorrow, he was wounded while successfully defending Hill 269 from being retaken by the Germans. The uncertainty of the date of the wound is due to conflicting reports. After all: the fog of war.

Joseph Thomas Hughes was born in Philadelphia in 1895, of Irish immigrant parents, who met in Philadelphia. His father, Thomas Hughes, died when Joseph was nine years old. When America joined the Great War, Joseph, then not quite 22, said goodbye to Philadelphia and enlisted, on May 5, 1917, reporting at Fort Slocum, in New Rochelle, New York. He was assigned to the newly formed First Engineers, First Division, American Expeditionary Forces. On August 7, he boarded the SS Finland in Hoboken, New Jersey and set sail for Saint-Nazaire, France, arriving August 20, 1917. His ship’s convoy fended off U-Boat attacks.

Upon arriving in France, Pvt. Hughes was moved by train to Menaucourt, where his unit trained with French engineers. He took advantage of that situation to become fluent in French. On November 20, 1917, his unit went into the combat zone, just south of Arracourt, France, not far from Germany. That was the Western Front. Things were not at all quiet for Joseph Hughes. He regularly saw action. In addition to Arracourt: Toul, Cantigny, Aisne-Marne, Pout a Mousson, St. Mihiel, and finally at Meuse-Argonne, the last battle of that war for the First Division. He was “in it” in it. As an engineer, his primary military tool was a shovel, but the First Engineers were regularly called upon to act as infantry, using nothing but carbines with bayonets. Infantry units had machine guns, but not the engineers.

Hill 269 was a turning point in the life of Joseph Hughes. He was 23. We are not certain of the exact nature of the wound. Family lore says it was mustard gas. A history of his unit, First Engineers, First Division, American Expeditionary Forces (he was in Company A) has him as W.I.A., but not G.I.A., the latter being the designation for Gassed in Action. That history was published in April 1919, or fairly close in time to the event. But it was based on military records created during, or right after, battle. The fog of war. His name is in the list of Companies at the end of the book. His middle initial in the book is wrong, but the Philadelphia address of the family he left behind is correct.

The U.S. Army in 1957 created a series of studies of chemical warfare in World War I. From Study Number 3 we learned that the First Division was gassed on both October 9 and 10 in the area of Hill 269. On the 9th, 31 gas bombardments caused 134 casualties, with ten of them returning to duty. On the 10th, 134 gas bombardments caused 57 casualties, 21 of whom were able to return to duty. So Pvt. Hughes may have been among the lucky 10 who were gassed on October 9, but returned to duty, or among the lucky 21 gassed on October 10 who returned to duty. Or maybe he was not gassed at all.

He died young, in January 1933. He was 37. An application form for Pennsylvania’s Veteran’s Compensation, prepared by his widow on March 27, 1934, indicated that he was “Gassed Oct 9 -1918.” That entry was his widow’s handwriting. A much smaller document approving the application indicates that he was “slightly” wounded on Oct. 10, 1918.” The approval card is dated July 30, 1934, which was about a year and a half after he died, four months after the longer application form was created, and more than fifteen years after the event in question. His widow received two hundred dollars.

So Joseph Thomas Hughes was gassed, or not gassed, but certainly wounded, on October 9, 1918. Or October 10, 1918. Hostilities in the War to End All Wars came to an end a month later, on November 11, which came to be known as Armistice Day, later renamed Veterans’ Day. My flag flies high on Veterans’ Day.

Joseph Thomas Hughes was my grandfather. We share a middle name. My younger son is named Thomas, though at the time he was given that name, I did not know the full family history. No regrets. Indeed, good call.

Here is an official citation:

France, February 15, 1919
General Orders )
No. 2 )
The following citation is announced:
The First Battalion, First U.S. Engineers, for distinguished service in the taking of Hill 269, Bois-de-Moncy, France, at 4 P.M., October 9, 1918, during the Meuse-Argonne Operation. This Battalion of Engineers with great courage and determination captured Hill 269, Bois-de-Moncy, together with many prisoners and machine guns, and successfully held it against strong enemy counter-attacks. On October 9, 1918, and afterward, this Battalion of Engineers participated in the general attack of the First Division, obtaining all of their objectives and capturing prisoners.
The action of this Battalion in the capturing of Hill 269 without the assistance of the special infantry weapons, other than the rifle and bayonet, is especially to be commended, in that they carried out a difficult mission outside of the line of their engineer duties with great skill, initiative and courage.
Major General,
Harry C. Kaefring,
Adjutant General

Note that the citation was issued in February 1919, months after the Armistice. There were likely few First Engineers still in France when the citation was issued. I wonder how many of them learned about it.

After the Armistice, Private Joseph Hughes remained in the AEF, and stayed in France. He was assigned to Paris, working in an office that dealt with returning America’s war dead to their homes. Pauline Mathilda Turpin, a local woman from Fismes (110 kilometers north of Paris) worked as a translator in the same office. Joseph was promoted to Corporal and then to Sergeant in the same month, July 2019. He was honorably discharged from service, and demobilized, on October 1, 1919. He could have gone home, but he decided to stay, and he married Pauline, and moved into her place in Fismes, 30 kilometers west of Reims.

Joseph and Pauline Hughes had three children. The first, Jacques, died as an infant. The other two included my mother, Jacqueline Anne. Joseph died on January 3, 1933, in the American Hospital, Neuilly-sur-Seine, a suburb just west of Paris. The cause of death indicated on his “Report of the Death of American Citizen, American Foreign Service” was pulmonary tuberculosis. My grandmother blamed his death on the gassing, insisting that the mustard gas made his lungs weak (a popular view at the time was that being gassed made one susceptible to tuberculosis, though that view is contradicted by some medical studies).

He was buried in the communal cemetery of Fismes. We think he was since moved to a military cemetery, but the quest for his final resting place continues.

His daughter met my father (also U.S. Army) a few months after WW II’s D-Day, when the U.S. Army’s Advance Section, Communications Zone (ADSEC), moved its headquarters from Etampes (southern suburb of Paris) to Reims – but that is another story from another war.

So today, on the 100th anniversary of his becoming a casualty in the Great War, or maybe the day before, I honor my grandfather, Joseph Thomas Hughes.

--Gerald T. Hathaway

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