Ralph Emerson Whatley's WWI Service

Mac Whatley, Guest Author
Roberta W. Gavin, Randolph Co. Public Library, contributor
Editor: Matthew M. Peek, Military Collection Archivist

[Today’s WWI blog post was written by Mac Whatley and submitted by Roberta W. Gavin, Randolph Room & Reference Librarian II at the Randolph County Public Library. The N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources would like to thank Mr. Whatley and Ms. Gavin for her contribution to North Carolina’s commemoration of the state’s role in World War I.]


Ralph Emerson Whatley was born on May 7, 1896, in the community of Trinity in Randolph County, N.C. He was the eldest of ten children born to Enoch Whatley, a railroad worker and later sawmill operator, and Mary Ellen May. Whatley spent his early years in the small community of Ulah in Randolph County, employed by his father in sawmilling and merchandising. He registered for the draft on June 5, 1917, and left Asheboro for training camp on December 4, 1917.  Whatley reported to boot camp at Camp Jackson, S.C. Before training began, he and hundreds of others there were diverted into the Army’s newest unit—the First Motor Mechanics Regiment of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, with his service number being 265055.


Military aviation at that time was a still new and untested concept, powered flight itself being just some fifteen years old. Balloon observation in the Signal Corps was the closest analogy in the Civil War-era Army line of battle, so planes, pilots and ground crews all were placed in the Aviation Section. When war was declared in 1917 the Aviation Section held fewer than 40 pilots, 300 officers and 2,000 men.  Working with the French to develop the new unit, the Army agreed to train and deploy 7,000 automobile mechanics to aid the French Motor Transport Corps, reasoning that French mechanics could then be transferred into aircraft manufacturing.


In November 1917, the Aviation Section created a new and unprecedented maintenance organization of four Motor Mechanics Regiments, each consisting of four battalions of five companies totaling at least 3,500 men. Recruiting officers circulated through the existing boot camps to fill the ranks, with the Army assigning junior officers from the automobile industry to serve as “technical advisors.” Ralph Whatley recalled that the first week at Camp Jackson a Captain asked them, “Can you drive a truck?” If the answer was yes, the response was, “Then you're gonna learn to fix a truck!” and they were put on a train to Camp Hancock, outside Augusta, Georgia. “If I had stayed in Camp [Jackson] I would have been in the 81st Division” Whatley later wrote [April 6, 1919].

By January 1918, more than 3,500 men calling themselves “Motor Men” had been assembled for the First Motor Mechanics Regiment at Camp Hancock in Augusta, Georgia. But it had become evident to the Army that the French were unable to meet the production demands of supplying aircraft to the U.S. pilots. The three Motor Mechanics regiments still at Camp Hancock were retrained to service aircraft instead of vehicles, delaying deployment until July. The 1st and 2nd Regiments, already embarking for France, would be attached to French Aviation units for on-the-job training and experience.


As part of the very first group culled from Camp Jackson, Whatley was assigned to Company A (later designated as Company 1) of the First Motor Mechanics Regiment. Company A consisted of a Captain, 2 lieutenants, 14 sergeants, and 151 enlisted men. They hailed from 25 states and the District of Columbia, as well Canada and England.  Of those 168 soldiers, almost a third—52 of them—listed next of kin in North Carolina, with 28 men from Tennessee, and 13 each from South Carolina and Ohio. The 52 North Carolinians were from 46 different communities, with only Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro having multiple men.


On Christmas Eve, December 24, 1917, Whatley wrote to his mother. “What do you think we are going to have for dinner tomorrow (Xmas?) Turkey! The motor mechanics have 3500 and Unkle Sam has sent 4 thousand pound of turkey and chicken for us. I do not know any thing about what the other thousands that are in this camp will have. There are none stationed close to us. They are most all national gards [sic] and we won’t associate with them- they are not in our class. Ha.”  By 26 Dec 1917 the Regiment has reached its full quota of men. “I have heard the sargent [sic] say just now there was three hundred more boys from Camp Jackson would be here to night. There is going to be 15 thousand of them motor men and the paper said we was to work on air ships and help on the ground with them.”


Soon after this letter, Whatley was hospitalized with spinal meningitis. He was fortunate in that he had family in nearby Augusta- his father's first cousin notified the family and his father Enoch Whatley travelled to the Camp Hancock infirmary to visit him the week after Christmas. Spinal meningitis was “raging through the camp… and has taken away many lives” [February 1, 1918]. Whatley recovered rapidly and was ready to go overseas when the Regiment was activated- leaving two men in the hospital in Georgia.


In an undated February or March 1919 letter discussing how Company K boys deserved to come home first, Whatley wrote, “Ask Papa if he remembers the fellow that come over to the YMCA after me when he was down at Camp Handcock Xmas before last. We lost him. He was a great friend of mine. He was very much like Henry Lewallen and weighed almost as much.”


 On December 31, 1917, officers were assigned to the Regiment. Col. William J. Kendrick, Maj. Peyton commanding 1st Battery, Capt. George D. Kays, US Infantry Reserve, to command Company A. There were five companies in the 1st Battalion of the 1st Regiment (Companies A-E), and final assignments were made 21 Jan 1918 as the unit prepared to leave Camp Hancock for Camp Albert L. Mills, on Long Island, NY. Whatley wrote that “I am really glad that we (164 besides myself) tho strangers to me, I feel as if I had known them all ways… You can see by the Company- Motor Mechanics- that we have a swell job. I have not had one hour’s drill since I have been in the Army. We do not have to learn any thing about marching or the handling of a gun. We are to fix cars” [February 1, 1918, letter from Camp Albert Mills on Long Island, New York].

The first and second Motor Mechanic Regiments departed Hoboken, New Jersey, on February 9, 1918, on the USS President Lincoln, a German passenger liner which had been commandeered for American troop transport duty. Whatley wrote about the boat trip that “We were on the boat 18 days.” On Washington’s Birthday, February 22, 1918, there was a special dinner. Whatley mentioned it in a letter from the same day in 1919, saying “One year ago today I was on the President Lincoln and we has some swell feed, and later you know the Huns got it on its return trip” [The USS President Lincoln was torpedoed by a U-Boat on its next return trip to the U.S.].


On February 24, 1918, the President Lincoln arrived at St. Nazaire, France. Whatley said in a February 1918 letter that “I have arrived safely and am feeling fine. Never even got seasick coming over. My tent are swell. Six from NC and 2 from SC. All Democrats so you see we are all right.” Despite this, Whatley later told his son Emerson he never liked eggs again after that trip- fried, scrambled, boiled- they had them every meal.


On March 7, 1918, the First Battalion of the First MM Regt left St. Nazaire with orders to proceed to La Bourget Seine, for duty at the Aerodrome. Le Bourget Aerodrome (7 miles north of the center of Paris) was first airport in France, opening for military aviation in July 1914.  Whatley’s battalion arrived on March 8, 1918, and his Company A was billeted at Dugny, about a kilometer west of Le Bourget.


In early 1918, Le Bourget was the headquarters of French military aviation, and the busiest airport in the country. It was where Lindbergh landed his cross-Atlantic flight in 1927, and today hosts the biennial Paris Air Show and the French air and space museum. There were several French squadrons stationed at Le Bourget, and American pilots from the Lafayette Escadrille and Lafayette Flying Corps often passed through as they were assigned to other American units.


While pilots have historically gotten more attention, the aviation ground crew was equally important. As part of their safety training, pilots were expected to know how their fragile planes were put together out of wood, wire, linen and sheet metal, and how their truck-sized gasoline engines were built and maintained. But the responsibility for building the planes, repairing them, and keeping them in the air fell to the mechanical ground crews. Every plane had its assigned pilot, rigger and machinist, and shared a carpenter and a sailmaker with one other plane.


A flying squadron was made up of twelve aircraft, and so required twelve pilots and thirty ground crew experienced in basic aviation trades: machinist, carpenter, motor fitter, wire rigger, sailmaker (for covering the wings with fabric), blacksmith, coppersmith (for radiator repairs), and electrician (for maintaining the high-tech magneto, coil, condenser and engine ignition parts).


Whatley was paid $36.60 per month as a private first class; his specialty is not made clear in his records, but he apparently became skilled at machine shop work and engine repair. An aircraft engine had a useful mechanical life of just 300 hours, and serious maintenance required them to be removed from the plane, disassembled and completely rebuilt. Most planes had two seats, one for the pilot, and another for an observer or gunner.  After any maintenance activity the ground Crew Chief was expected to ride in the second seat for a shakedown flight- a ritual that built confidence between the pilot and his crew. Apparently, Ralph Whatley went on some of these rides. Later on May 29, 1918, he wrote to his mother, “Why! Sure I am in good heart or I would not write that way. This is just what I have all ways wished for, a chance to see the world. And believe “me” I have seen some of the world from high up above the ground but don’t worry I have quit while times are good.”


The Air Corps was divided among three primary functions: the “Pursuit” (fighter plane) Squadron; the Observation Squadron, and the Bombing Squadron.  Observation of enemy forward lines and activity was as old as the Signal Corps itself, but in WWI it not only involved the regular Army Observers, but new Aerial Photographers, whose mobile darkrooms followed the pilots and ground crew from base to base. Pursuit pilots were the top of the service; they were lionized in the press, and were considered “aces” if they shot down five enemy planes. As Le Bourget was the center of aviation during the war, and the base for pilots on leave to Paris, Whatley evidently met a number of pivotal figures in American aviation- Eddie Rickenbacker, Billy Mitchell, and Quentin Roosevelt, who died in July 1918.


Whatley also told his son that he knew Joyce Kilmer, the poet who was killed in action in June 1918. In the spring of 1918, Kilmer regularly volunteered for intelligence gathering assignments, and may have known the Motor Men through their side duty of maintaining the army’s fleet of trucks and motorcycles. In an April 26, 1918, letter to his father, Whatley said, “Dear Papa—I received your letter the other day stating that you was at Greensboro and that you was a powerful Car Driver. Well, I am a powerful Truck Driver. I guess you drive as fast as I did by now.” 


The Regiment was undoubtedly sent to Le Bourget for an intensive course in airplane maintenance and repair at that busy aerodrome. “I have seen a large portion of France including Paris, having been there almost a month. It was an eight-minute ride by street car but we have moved now,” said Whatley on July 19, 1918. They were all also undergoing a crash course in learning the French language, something that would be necessary in their role as embedded mechanics with the French forces. Whatley would write on April 26, 1918, that “Believe me it is some job to learn this French talk. I have learned about one dozen words. Ha.” While it was the most convenient base for Paris trips, it was also the primary target of German bombing: “Am in no danger except perhaps in an air raid; have been in one- they amount to nothing you know” [April 4, 1918, letter home].


It was also a target of the German’s “Big Bertha” railroad gun, which fired on Paris while the Regiment was at Dugny: “Well, you have heard about the big guns that shot at Paris? I could tell you how it sounds but I cannot hear it now since we moved,” wrote Whatley in an April 22, 1918, letter.

On March 17, 1918, the munitions factory at Le Courneuve exploded by accident; it was 5 miles from center of Paris and a kilometer from Dugny near the Le Bourget aerodrome. The explosion had the force of “15 Million Hand Grenades” said the Popular Science of August 1918, which Whatley asked his mother and father to read: “I was so near that place when they went off that I will always have a lasting memory of the place and the day it happened” [March 9, 1919, letter].


On April 13, 1918, Company A and Battalion HQ left Le Bourget and the next day reported for duty at “R.G. Ae. Etampes, Seine et Oisne” [Etampes Aerodrom was 70 km south of Paris, just west of the bigger Orly Aerodrome. Etampes, near Rouen, 50 minutes by rail from Paris, was the site of one of the first aviation schools in France, established by Louis Bleriot in 1909. It was the most active aviation school of the War. Bleriot was the most successful aircraft manufacturer in France, and his monoplanes dominated the air racing circuit in the years before the War.]


Whatley and his company would stay at Etampes for most of the summer of 1918, and life settled into a routine of work and recreation that he recited in numerous letters home. Some excerpts from Whatley’s letters show his experiences in France, including the following quotes:   


August 12, 1918: “All I know about the war is that I am in France instead of the U.S. and away from home, and you do not have [ginger] ale? Well we do at the Y.M.C.A. or lemonade, and they have anything stronger than that in town; would be a good place to get snake bit.”


August 22, 1918: ”No them boys were not Emery [L. Walker, Caraway NC, 7th squad] or the Englishman [Henry John Bryant, from Wiltshire, England, 2nd squad], they were both Tar Heels tho. One from Roanoke Rapids and the other from Concord. The one from Concord was “Sam” McCommings [Samuel A. McCommons, 2nd squad], the other was Ingram.” [Isaac W. Ingram, Voltare, NC, 7th squad]


September 8, 1918: “Today is Sunday and we sure had some rain since last night about 6 pm. Most all the boys have gone away about 30 miles to see a ball game, this P.M. I thought it would rain so it did and I am glad I did not go.”


September 22, 1918: “I enclose a picture I had taken last Sunday. I wanted to stomp the Frog [derogatory slang term for a French person] that made it. If I had not already paid for them I would not have taken them.”


September 29, 1918 [Sunday]: “Emory Walker received [a letter] from Earl Poole today; said he was getting along fine” [Pvt. William Earl Poole of Asheboro’s Company K had died just that morning, September 29, 1918, at the Battle of St. Quentin Canal].


November 13, 1918: “Co.1 ordered to Massy Palaiseau for duty, repairing and testing automobiles. After the Armistice, the Motor Men were allowed to revert to their original purpose—repair and maintenance of cars and trucks.”


December 11, 1918: “Palaiseau” France; I went through Chateau Thierry a few days ago… I went to Versailles last Sunday and went through King Louis XIV’s palace. . . . President Wilson is going to be in Paris Saturday. I do not know whether we will be given passes there that day or not. I heard there was a possibility of it; if they do I shall not go because of the crowd. I was there a few Sundays ago at a celebration and believe me it is not like being at a small county fair, there was not thousands on the street but Millions and I am sure it will be worse Saturday. I am near Paris now, it only costs 5 cents railroad fare and I can see the “Eiffel Tower” from here.


December 19, 1918: “I went to Paris last Saturday to see President Wilson and believe me there was some crowd there.”


January 9, 1919: “Sampigny—I am now back to an American camp as you know we have been with the French ever since I have been over here. I am sorry to get detached from the French tho I am glad to get back among lots of Americans again. I am near St. Michel where the Americans made a great drive against the Germans.”


From a part of a letter written in either February or March 1919: “Ask Papa if he remembers the fellow that come over to the YMCA after me when he was down at Camp Handcock Xmas before last. We lost him. He was a great friend of mine. He was very much like Henry Lewallen and weighed almost as much. . . . Walter’s death grieved me more than anyone else because he was my first school mate at school” [Pvt. Walter B. Hussey of Ulah, of Company K, died on September 29, 1918].

March 23, 1919: “Speaking of the flu [Spanish flu outbreak in spring of 1919] it only stayed with me about 3 days. And don’t mention rain, I got it all over Noah. He went through 40 days and I have seen 400 almost rainy days in France. That fellow didn’t put it wrong when he said he could recall only an hour or so of sunshine, and we don’t have happen over here at any special time of the year to hit a rainy season.”


Ralph Whatley arrived at the port of Brest, France, sailing from Brest on June 9, 1919, on the troop transport ship USS America. He arrived on June 18, 1919, in Hoboken, New Jersey. According to Whatley’s son Emerson, the boys were all paid in Brest, and spent much of the voyage home gambling. When they arrived in New Jersey, Whatley and his friend Robert Steele went out shopping. Whatley bought a gold watch and pair of cufflinks. Steele, the son of a Richmond County mill owner, bought a new Pierce Arrow.  The two of them took turns driving the car back to North Carolina.


Ralph Whatley was officially discharged from the U.S. Army on July 1, 1919. In 1921, he opened an automobile repair garage in his home community of Ulah. In 1924, Whatley married Cora Allene Trogdon, and the couple had three children: Ralph Emerson Whatley Jr. (born 1926), Lowell McKay Whatley (born 1930), and Wendell Norris Whatley (born 1945). Ralph Whatley was a founding member of the Forty and Eight Society, and served as commander of Post 45 of the American Legion in Asheboro, N.C.  During World War II, he chaired the Randolph County Selective Service Board. Ralph Whatley died at the age of 67 on April 27, 1964.


You can learn more about the Ralph Whatley's life and WWI service by checking out the Ralph E. Whatley Collection at the Randolph County Public Library in Asheboro, N.C. See the attached finding aid for the Whatley Collection for more information about the collection.




Ralph E. Whatley Collection, Mss. Collection #1, Randolph Room, Randolph County Public Library, Asheboro, N.C.


Ancestry.com: “U.S. Army Transport Service, Passenger Lists, 1910-1939/ Outgoing/ President Lincoln/ 9 Feb 1918-10 May 1918”--[includes the only surviving roster of the men of the First and Second Motor Mechanics Regiments, as any other records were destroyed in the National Archives fire of 1973.]

Associated Files