Flirting With History Postscript: A Soldier’s Letter to His Fiancee, 10 February 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Despite the often heavy showers this afternoon, the Homestead’s “Flirting With History” tours, focusing on Temple family letters reflective of love, within and outside the family, were pretty well attended and our visitors really seemed to enjoy the readings of these missives.

These took place in both the Workman House and La Casa Nueva with letters spanning from the early 1840s to the mid 1920s, including correspondence between siblings, between an unidentified woman making a “Leap Year” marriage proposal to a Temple, between Walter and Laura Temple when they were teens over fifteen years before they married, and between their son Thomas and his deceased mother.

WWI Reg back Bernard
The World War I draft registration card for Elmer Bernard, 5 June 1917.


This selection provided a broad range for the expression of love and also some highly unusual types, including the Leap Year concept in which a woman could propose to a man during those four-year cycles; the dramatic letter from Thomas to his mother nearly two years after she passed, and our meeting in the Workman House basement because this is where Walter Temple and his grandmother, Nicolasa Workman, met clandestinely to discuss how to transmit one of his incredibly flowery and passionate letters to Laura.

Tonight’s post is a variation of sorts on a theme.  It doesn’t involve the Temple family, but it is an interesting love letter, penned on this date a century ago.  The writer was Elmer Barnard, a corporal in the American Expeditionary Force, who was being treated at the base hospital at Camp Fremont, located on over 7,000 acres in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, California.  His recipient was fiancee Gladys Wilkinson, who was living in Los Angeles.

Bernard Troop Transport 12 June 1918
Cpl. Elmer Bernard of Company E of the 364th Infantry Regiment, 91st Infantry Division of the American Expeditionary Force, at the bottom of this detail from a troop passenger list, dated 12 July 1918, as he headed for Europe, where he served in an ambulance and hospital corps in two major offensives at the end of the war.

Barnard, born in Missouri in 1892, moved with his family to Tulare County in a farming community north of Visalia, was a student at Pomona College in Claremont when he registered for the draft on 5 June 1917.  He then joined the Army, serving in Company E of the 364th Infantry Regiment, an ambulance and hospital company of the 91st Infantry Division.

His company sailed out on the “Olympic” from New York on 12 July 1918 and in September the first battlefield action was experienced in the St. Mihiel offensive, which lasted from the 12th to the 15th and was concentrated in the Meuse department of northeastern France.  Forces in the 91st Division were led directly Major General William H. Johnston and the offensive was commanded by the A.E.F.’s commanding general, John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.

Bernard letter p1
The next five images are of Bernard’s letter and envelope to fiancee Gladys Wilkinson, dated 10 February 1919 from the base hospital at Camp Fremont in Palo Alto, California, where he was recovering from an arm injury, presumably suffered while in France.

The offensive was very successful with fresh American troops routing tired and demoralized Germans and Pershing halted any further advance to prepare for the Meuse-Argonne offensive, which lasted in three phases from 26 September until the war’s end on 11 November.  It was during this period that Joseph Kauffman, the brother of Walter P. Temple’s business manager, Milton Kauffman, was killed (Temple’s memorial to Joseph Kauffman has been the topic of previous posts on this blog.)

It is not known how Bernard was injured, though it seems likely that it happened on the battlefield in one of the two major offensives that led to the Allied victory.  He was in the Camp Fremont hospital for an arm injury when he wrote his sweetheart.

Bernard letter p2

Wilkinson, who was from the Fresno area, moved to Los Angeles with her family by 1910 because her father, a high school teacher, secured a position in the area.  The Wilkinsons lived at Figueroa and 36th streets next to (and now part of) the campus of the University of Southern California and she may have attended the school.

It is unknown how the couple met, though it may have been through their attendance at colleges or, perhaps, family associations from the Central Valley.  In any case, Bernard began his letter by noting “I am sitting by the fireplace in a rocking chair, how I wish it was our fire place, and you were by my side.” He added that it wouldn’t be long before they were together again “unless my arm gets worse,” though he noted that he didn’t think surgery was going to be necessary.

Bernard letter p3

Bernard reported that he and a fellow soldier took a trip to San Francisco and were picked up by “people [who] must have been millionaires” in a Stevens-Duryea Six automobile, a touring sedan that was quite expensive.  In fact, Bernard added that “one of the ladies had two big diamond rings.”

Once in the city, he noted that he and his fellow soldier went on a ride that “was surely grand, especially Golden Gate Park and out at the Cliff House.”  He only wished Wilkinson could have been there with him.  He then observed that

the other fellow is married.  He told me there was nothing like being married.  He said a man didn’t know what happiness was until he was married.  I am tired of running around, a fellow doesn’t get ahead.  Why not be happy?  Don’t you look at it that way, Sid [his nickname for Wilkinson]?

A bit of melancholy was in Bernard’s mind as he told Wilkinson that he didn’t feel like writing earlier, perhaps because of the rain and that “things are so blue when it rains here, it is bad enough when the sun shines.  Still, he continued

A fellow ought to be satisfied that he is not dead, I am thankful that I am alive, but I have been in the hospital for so long I am sick and tired of it.

He then informed Wilkinson that “a fellow in ‘K’ ward shot him self Sunday.  He must have been crazy.”  Reinforcing his gratitude to be alive, Bernard added, “I believe in living as long as God will let me, though I was sacrifice ‘it,’ if it is necessary.”

Bernard letter p4

This moving from thoughts of future happiness to ruminations on present concerns is not surprising from an injured soldier recovering from wounds at a military hospital and it is in keeping with our “Flirting With History” title that Bernard concluded his letter by asking Wilkinson

Say honey, can’t you tell me those ‘thoughts’  you wrote about?  I would love to hear them.

These are the words of a man in love, but also far removed from the object of his affection and desire and in a place that largely brought sadness and amplified the loneliness he felt away from his beloved.


Fortunately, Bernard was soon discharged from the camp hospital (Camp Fremont closed in September 1919, but the hospital remained and was later a tuberculosis sanitarium and a Veterans Administration hospital—the site is now a Stanford University free clinic) and mustered out of the service.  On 30 June 1919, he and Wilkinson were married in Los Angeles and then moved back to Orosi, the farming town where his parents lived and ran an orange grove.  The following year, the couple welcomed their only child, daughter Elnor, and later Gladys went to work as a public school teacher, following her father’s profession.

Notably, she had five years of college education, presumably a bachelor’s degree and a year of teacher training, while he did not return to school after the one year at Pomona College.  By 1940, the couple, who’d moved just west from Orosi to Dinuba during the Great Depression, resided in Fresno near the city college.  Gladys was still teaching, but Elmer transitioned from being an orange grower to running his own service station.  Their daughter found work while in her first year of college as secretary in a medical office.

Marriage record 30Jun19
Gladys Wilkinson and Elmer Bernard’s listing at the bottom of this detail of the “Index to Marriages,” showing their marriage as taking place on 30 June 1919, a little over four months after his letter to her.

From what has been found, the Bernards lived a solid middle class life.  When he registered for the draft for World War II (though he was near fifty), Elmer and Gladys were in Fresno, but after the war concluded, the couple moved to Chula Vista, south of San Diego where she continued her teaching career and Elmer moved into carpentry.  Gladys died in 1966 and Elmer followed her five years later.

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