1918: The brief WWI service of Uncles Tom and Dewey Charboneau

Sepia Saturday 540. Eleventh in a series about Albert Barney Charboneau — my paternal grandfather’s brother who died in the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918.

Albert Barney Charboneau circa 1910. Scan by Molly Charboneau

While my dad’s Uncle Albert and his brother Ray (my grandfather) performed alternative service during WWI, the other two Charboneau brothers — Tom and Dewey — were called to active duty.

Yet they mustered in so late in the war that each only served briefly — and neither went abroad.

Orville Nile “Tom” Charboneau was inducted into the U.S. Army in Little Falls, Herkimer Co., N.Y. on 3 Sept. 1918. According to his service card, he was appointed as a Private 1st Class on 15 Oct. 1918. However, where he served is a bit of a mystery.

WWI: Basic training exercises (ca. 1918). Photo: Library of Congress

Where did Uncle Tom serve?

Tom was in service when his brother Uncle Albert died from the 1918 influenza — and his places of service were given in Albert’s obituaries.

  • One obituary, in the 24 Oct. 1918 issue of the Utica Herald Dispatch, says Albert was survived by a brother “Orville, who is stationed with the American forces at Fort Schuyler on Long Island.”
  • Another of Albert’s obituaries, in the 29 Oct. 1918 issue of the Little Falls Journal and Courier, lists him as “Orville, of Camp Shutler, L.I.”
WWI: Camp at Ft. Totten, Queens, New York. (ca. 1918) Photo: Library of Congress

Meanwhile, his service card — under Organizations served in, with dates of assignments and transfers — says he served in  “C Def of Eastern NY Ft Totten NY Co 9 to disch.”

Did Tom have three assignments?

Is it possible that Uncle Tom served in all three places? Maybe so. There were temporary WWI training camps all over Long Island at the time, so he could have started out in a Camp Shutler.

And if Tom was in coastal defense, then Fort Schuyler (located on Long Island Sound in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx)  seems consistent with the final assignment listed on his service card — Fort Totten (in northeast Queens on Long Island Sound).

With so many soldiers mobilized, there was undoubtedly a great deal of troop movement here and there to fill assignments — and Tom may have been caught up in that during his brief time in service.

WWI: The mess hall at Fort Totten, Queens, New York. (ca. 1918). Photo : Library of Congress

Proud to be veterans

Tom was was honorably discharged on 9 Dec. 2018 at the end WWI — after serving for three months.

Uncle George Dewey Charboneau’s time in the Army was even shorter than Tom’s. He was drafted on  11 Nov. 1918 — but returned home before reaching camp when Armistice was declared, ending the war.

Yet despite their brief stints, both Tom and Dewey were proud to be veterans. In his book Herkimer County in the World War: 1916-1918, Franklin W. Christman compiled an Honor Roll of Herkimer County veterans of WWI.

Here are Tom and Dewey’s entries, which I later confirmed they authored themselves in response to a survey.

CHARBONEAU, ORVILLE N., Little Falls, N.Y.; born April 23, 1891; drafted September 3, 1918; U.S. Troops, Syracuse, Fort Schuyler; discharged December, 1918.

CHARBONNEAU, GEORGE D., Dolgeville, N.Y.; born June 12, 1898; drafted November 11, 1918; returned before reaching camp, Peace Day; honorably discharged.

A Memorial Day posting

Fast forward to the year 2000, when this Honor Roll appeared online as part of a Memorial Day celebration — then to 2006, when I first saw Tom and Dewey’s names on the list and emailed for details.

Back came this response from Marine veteran Paul T. McLaughlin, Village of Ilion editor for the Rootsweb site where I found the list. Sadly, Paul died in 2017 so I will let him have the last word.

I continue to be amazed by how many inquiries I have received since that list was posted in the 2000 4-County Memorial Day extravaganza. Here’s what your relatives wrote in response to the questionnaire. [Here he typed in the above listings verbatum.]

Strange that they spelled it [their surname] differently, but that may have been a typo from the transcriber. Orville [Tom] had only to serve a couple of months, and George [Dewey] was drafted on Armistice Day, so they didn’t have much to write about. That’s good!

Up next: The deadly 1918 influenza emerges. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants here.

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10 thoughts on “1918: The brief WWI service of Uncles Tom and Dewey Charboneau”

    1. I was also pleased to find that mess hall photo, and the others. I live not far from Ft. Totten and didn’t realize my dad’s Uncle Tom was stationed there until I took a serious look at my research while writing this blog post. I’ll have to plan a post-pandemic visit there.

  1. The United States was woefully unprepared for war in 1917, much less 1914. The regular army was tiny compared to European forces, and conscription was the only way to fulfill Wilson’s commitment to Britain and France. But once we mobilized, the big obstacles were how to set up training camps, transport systems, and manufacture, collect, and distribute the thousands of items a soldier needed to go into battle across an ocean in a foreign country. It’s amazing how Americans evolved from a neutral to a belligerent nation in 1917, and accomplished so much in 1918.

    I think for many young men like Orville and George, traveling to their basic training camp was likely their first exposure to men from other parts of the country. And certainly for most, the voyage across the Atlantic was their first big adventure to a foreign land. Think what a noise they must have made in that mess hall!

    1. The nature of the training camps, set up so quickly and with so many conscripts in them, may have contributed to the spread of the 1918 influenza. I also really liked the mess hall photo — which looks like the “outdoor dining” setups we see today during the C19 pandemic.

  2. Oh my, those old WWI uniforms and especially the hats! I smile when I see Tom and Dewey’s names as they relate in a way to how names have been handled in our family. As Orville Nile became ‘Tom’, my maternal grandfather, Ira Edwin (Whitney), became ‘Jim’ because my grandmother didn’t like Ira or Edwin and decided he looked like a ‘Jim’ and it stuck through the family on down to the son who was Ira Edwin Jr., but was also known as ‘Jim’. As for George Dewey, he decided to go with his middle name which is something I have done. My mother thought Shirley-Gail with a hyphen was pretty and it is, I suppose, but too long, so I left the ‘Shirley’ off. The only problem is when I have to use my full legal name, folks call me Shirley. It wouldn’t be so bad except Shirley, put together with my married last name, forms a sing-song’y duo which everyone finds so cute and loves to repeat. Augh.

    1. Orville seems like an old fashioned name, so I’m not surprised my dad’s uncle went by Tom once that became his nickname. Not sure why Dewey went by his middle name as there are no other Georges in the family. These will both remain mysteries as my dad never knew the reason.

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