Reading Between the Lines: A Letter to Walter P. Temple from Arthur A. “Ben” Gale of the United States Army Signal Corps, 20 January 1918

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

When Walter P. Temple leased his ranch near Montebello to Standard Oil Company of California for oil drilling, work began early in 1917 on the first well situated on the northeast corner of the Montebello Hills, a stone’s throw away from a test well brought in late the previous year on land formerly owned by his father as part of Rancho La Merced, lost to foreclosure to Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin on loan for the Temple and Workman bank, and inherited in 1909 by Baldwin’s daughters, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker.

In fact, Temple acquired his sixty acres in October 1912 from the Baldwin estate after making a deal with executor Hiram A. Unruh so that he could make the purchase by essentially borrowing the money from the estate! In doing so, he sold the family homestead a short distance to the east and the Temples occupied the adobe house built by Rafael Basye and which included a store and billiard parlor, at one time owned by Walter’s sister and her husband, Lucinda and Manuel M. Zuñiga.

AA Gale WWI reg 5Jun17
Arthur Aaron Gale’s registration card for the draft on 5 June 1917, just after America entered the First World War. Note his employment as an “oil well worker” for Standard Oil Company of California on the Baldwin lease, just west of the Temple lease. See also the lower left corner, which reads “If person is of African descent, tear off this corner.”

That first well was brought in to production towards the end of June 1917, about three weeks after the first draft registration for American men following the entry of the United States into the First World War with President Woodrow Wilson declaring war on Germany and its allies in April. Among the millions who registered for the draft (a second registration was conducted in September 1918) was an employee of Standard Oil on the Baldwin and Temple leases named Arthur Aaron “Ben” Gale. Today’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is a letter written by Gale to Temple on 20 January 1918.

Gale was born in October 1893 in San Mateo, a city along San Francisco Bay about twenty miles south of San Francisco, and his father was a house carpenter. In the 1910 federal census, the 16-year old Gale worked as a clerk for an express company, but it is not known how we got into working for Standard Oil and why he wound up in greater Los Angeles. When he registered for the draft on 5 June 1917, Gale’s occupation was “oil well worker” on the “Baldwin lease,” but it seems clear that he did some work on the Temple lease, as well.

AA Gale Signal Corps The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Nov_18__1917_
Gale among those listed as having left the previous week for training for the United States Army Signal Corps at Camp Kearny north of San Diego, Los Angeles Times, 18 November 1917.

The letter was written seven months after the registration and by mid-November, Gale was in the United States Army and its American Expeditionary Force (A.E.F.), created specifically for the war, and he applied and was accepted into the Signal Corps. The corps dates back to 1860 when Major Albert J. Myer, an Army doctor, established a signaliing system, known as “wigwag,” during campaigns against the Navajo Indians in New Mexico, consisting of the use of the semaphore system with flags during daylight hours and signaling with torches at night.

With the onset of the Civil War the following year, Myer’s “wigwag” system was employed and, in March 1863, the Army officially created the Signal Corps. After the war, the use of the telegraph and the development of a weather bureau were added to its duties, with telephone and wire elements added by the time the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898. An early effort to employ balloons during the Civil War failed, but was revived in this later conflict. while airplanes began to be used about a decade later, with the Wright Brothers assisting with initial test flights. For World War I, the latest innovation under the corps’ auspices included the employment of radio tubes in the “radiotelephone,” which saw use on the battlefield in France, though the telephone and telegraph were still primary means of communication.

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Mon__Jan_28__1918_
Reference to the oil wells completed and in construction on the Temple lease, including the recently completed #3, referenced in Gale’s letter, as part of a lengthy article about the Montebello field and the Temple family’s extraordinary fortune derived from it, Times, 28 January 1918.

In its 18 November 1917 issue, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Signal Corps needed about three dozen men for the 115th Field Signal Battalion, noting that “this company has been practically recruited to full strength from Los Angeles and vicinity” and listing those who, the previous week, left the area “for the training camp of the Signal Corps at Camp Kearny,” including Arthur A. Gale.

The camp, on the Rancho Misión San Diego de Alcalá granted to Santiago Argüello and later called Miramar by newspaper publisher and owner Edward Scripps, was established exactly four months earlier on a mesa about eleven miles north of San Diego and was named for Brigadier Stephen Watts Kearny, who led the Army of the West to San Diego from Camp Leavenworth in what became Kansas in late 1846 during the Mexican-American War. Kearny led his troops into a disastrous trouncing by Californios commanded by General Andrés Pico at the Battle of San Pasqual and then joined forces with U.S. Navy Commodore Robert F. Stockton on a long march and the recapture of Los Angeles in early 1847 that included a meeting with William Workman at San Juan Capistrano after which was the battle on the 9th that led to Workman and two others greeting American forces with the white flag of truce the next day.

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It was still early in the year and Gale wrote the year as ’17, although it was 1918.

Building the infrastructure at the camp, along with a few dozen others throughout the country, to quickly mobilize, train and ship American soldiers to France, was an impressive achievement, with enough work done by Thanksgiving to welcome soldiers like Gale. A little over two months after arrival at the camp, Gale, who was with Company D of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 40th Infantry Brigade, wrote his letter to “Friend Walter,” whose address had changed from simply “El Monte, Calif.” where the mail carrier knew where the Temples lived out “in the sticks” at the oil field to the family’s short-term residence in what the new address said was Alhambra, but was known commonly as Ramona Acres and then Monterey Park. In late November 1917, the Temples bought a home in Alhambra proper, but spent time remodeling the house and property and evidently had not occupied the place when the letter was received.

Gale began his missive, written on letterhead of the Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A.) and its Army and Navy branch organized through the National War Work Council but mis-dated with the year “’17” instead of 1918, by saying that “everything is going along pretty well down here though I have a bad cold in my lungs,” a notable statement given that, within a few months, the so-called “Spanish flu” pandemic, which may actually have had its origins in America, if not in France or England, erupted in its initial less widespread phase, before the “second wave” in fall 1918 created an enormous swath of infection and death. Whether Gale later had the “Spanish flu” is not known.

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He then added “new men [are] coming into the camp every week and if they don’t send some of us out pretty soon we will be overcrowded.” The 10,000-acre camp with 1200 buildings and other elements, with a total construction cost of $4.5 million, was designed to house 40,000 men and Gale told Temple “it would surely be cheerful news if I was to get the command to move for France.” He went on to say “in fact, we are all anxiously awiting our chance,” following this by telling Temple that he was writing “in a reception room and there is [are] about 2,000 of the boys singing and having a great time of it.” No wonder the flu spread so rapidly among soldiers crammed into camps with substandard housing arrangements, sanitation and hygience and given to fraternizing and hijinks that easily spread the contagion!

Gale continued that “there are about forty thousand of us in the camp and, though we get homesick at times, we cannot get lonesome” though he allowed that “everyone of [us] seem[s] to wish it [the war] were over but at the same time want to see some actual service in France.” He informed Temple that there were British and French officers at the camp “lecturing and drilling us and we hear some wonderful tales from the trenches.” Presumably “wonderful” didn’t mean “good,” but who knows?

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He then noted that “the Y.M.C.A. have four large reception halls here,” while the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic organization, “afford us a great deal of entertainment.” Gale then confessed, “but Gee, how I long for the Standard lease at old Mission,” the latter referring to the common name of “Old Mission” because the original Mission San Gabriel was founded, in September 1771, just across San Gabriel Boulevard from the Temple lease before flooding from the San Gabriel River, now the Rio Hondo, led to its relocation to higher, dryer ground. He added, “when I was up there for the [Christmas and New Year’s] holidays I used to sit down by the hour and wonder when I would be able to go back and call it my home again.”

As for the Temple lease, Gale then wrote, “I must congratulate you after reading in the paper of No. 3 coming in.” The second well, finished in August, produced, as the first did, some 500 barrels a day, but the bringing in of the third, situated quite close to the third Baldwin well, proved to be a much bigger producer. The well not only produced five times the output of its predecessors, but was of a much superior gravity, “the best yet discovered in the field,” according to the 28 January 1918 edition of the Times in a lengthy feature by Johnstone Jones, a Los Angeles attorney later hired by Temple to write the history of the Workman and Temple families, though the work went unfinished, about the Montebello field and the amazing success of the Temples. Despite this success, Gale averred that “I imagined that it would be a larger well than that, but it is a nice well at that.”

AA gale 1920 census Standard Oil Boarding House El Monte
Gale’s enumeration in the 1920 census (a little less than a month earlier he was counted in his family’s San Mateo home) as he lived in the Standard Oil Company’s boarding house on the Montebello field and was listed as a “gang pusher” or field supervisor.

The author then asked Temple “have you seen Joe O’Neill lately [?]” and requested that O’Neill, who was mentioned in yesterday’s post as the recipient of a late 1921 or early 1922 loan from Temple, “get busy and write a letter as he owes me one.” As to a return to his friends at Old Mission, Gale noted “I do not know if I will be able to get up to that country very soon again as they will only allow us away on 20 mile passes,” which meant that San Diego was their best location for some R&R.

He then observed “they are making us discard all our suitcases and boxes so it looks like a move soon for some of us.” It is not known whether Gale was shipped out to Europe as it appears some men were sent to other camps for additional training while others went directly to the battlefields of France. One source notes that some 65,000 soldiers passed through Camp Kearny during the year from July 1917 to July 1918, with just under 10% hailing, like Gale, from California, a similar number of roughly 6,000 from Nebraska and nearly that many from Utah and Arizona combined. Over 44,000 men were transferred from other camps.

AA Gale 1929 Rivera District Directory
Gale’s listing in the “Rivera District Directory” of 1929 when he was still selling oil well supplies, though a few years later he turned to ranching.

With the ghastly war, largely bogged down in trench fighting killing tens of millions, coming to a merciful end, Camp Kearny was converted to a demobilization site by the end of 1918, with nearly 17,000 soldiers handled there as they were being mustered out and by fall 1920 it was abandoned. The site remained government property and it achieved some renown in 1927 when Ryan Airlines, based in San Diego, used the airfield there for test flights of The Spirit of St. Louis, which was flown by Charles Lindbergh in his famous solo flight across the Atlantic that May. The site later became a naval air station and then the current Marine Corps air station at Miramar.

As to Gale, he returned to work for Standard Oil and had the distinction of being enumerated twice in the 1920 census. On 12 January, he was with his family in Menlo Park and his occupation was given as a clerk, but less than a month later, on 6 February, he was in the “Boarding House, Standard Oil Co.” at Old Mission in the El Monte Township, where he profession was stated as “gang pusher,” which to our modern ears takes on a decidedly different connotation, but which simply meant an on-site supervisor in the field. Two years later, he married Vella Nagle and he moved into the sales of oil drilling equipment.

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Whiiter News, 2 March 1934.

In the early 1930s, living on what is now Rosemead Boulevard in the Rivera community of what later became Pico Rivera, he turned to ranching. Considered one of California’s best amateur golfers, he won a state championship tournament at Montebello Golf Club, where he was a member. On the last day of February 1934, however, he died of undisclosed causes after an operation at Murphy Memorial Hospital in Whittier. Gale was just 40 years old.

Gale’s letter is a notable and interesting artifacts because of its associations with Walter P. Temple and his oil lease, but also because of the writer’s service at Camp Kearny during the First World War and the Y.M.C.A.’s Hostess House, which furnished both the location and the letterhead for the missive.

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